There is good news out there people, and it is this: At least once a year now, we are getting some really good, slow moving, beautifully shot, well-acted, hard sci-fi in theaters amidst all the frivolity of Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, DC and other eye and nostalgia candy (as awesome as that is). We had Gravity and Interstellar couple years ago, The Martian and Ex Machina last year, and this year we have Arrival.
Of course it is science fiction, so it is based in reality, but it still takes a few suspensions of disbelief. However, good sci-fi makes us WANT to take those leaps, to give us the logical reasoning and the innocent hope that those amazing things that are just outside our comprehension are possible.
So it is with Arrival, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by renowned and much awarded sci-fi author Ted Chiang. It follows the story of linguist Dr. Louise Banks, (Amy Adams, beautifully playing a WAY more dimensioned character than Lois Lane this time!) a woman damaged by her daughter’s untimely death at a young age from cancer, yet who still has hidden energy, strength and purpose, which is called forth by the arrival of the aliens. Adams really brings depth to this role.
Banks works to decipher the written language of the Heptapods, the seven-tentacled aliens who arrived to Earth in 12 colossal, randomly distributed, elliptical pods. After failed attempts to decipher their resonant, low- toned vocal emissions, she develops a way to read their ephemeral, wispy, circular, paint stroke-like language with the help of astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (the charming Jeremy Renner, who lets Amy have her time to shine while basically playing math side kick like a nerdy Hawkeye). Colonel Weber (an under-used Forrest Whitaker in a role too small for his range, and here’s hoping he gets his time to shine in Rogue One!) is the conduit for keeping things intense as pressure mounts from the international community to figure out the language and communicate.
As the research progresses, global cooperation becomes competition once the phrase “offer weapon” is used by the aliens. Political and international dialogue breaks down, leading to crisis. However, using the memories of and feelings surrounding her daughter’s death, as well as her amazing linguistic genius, Dr. Banks finally realizes the true nature of their language and the extent of its power! She then breaks alien visitation protocol after a mini military coup to destroy the aliens, and uses her newfound understanding to communicate with the aliens face to face on a deeper level, where their language and voice finally reveal themselves. Also, it turns out they are not all tentacle! The aliens, having finally and successfully communicated with a human, leave peacefully as their ships disappear into dainty clouds as wispy as their written language. Added bonus: Russia and China don’t have to nuke anyone!
No spoilers here on what the alien language’s power is and how it is used, because I don’t want to rob the viewer of that gratifying twist, but suffice it to say it is highly effective, and pays off well because of the empathy we feel for Dr. Banks, largely to Amy Adams’ awesome performance.
Filmed on only a 47 million dollar budget, the film still manages to display amazing visual effects and amazing air photography. The whole film is extremely well shot and editing, with slow moving, panning shots of great landscapes and of the alien ship’s and their interiors. Slow, not annoying 2001 Space Odyssey slow, but slow enough to give you time to pause, think, appreciate, take in the scope, reflect on themes, and move on.
And if one theme does really spring forth from this film, channeling Chiang’s amazing writing and tense play in the book, it is that of communication. I felt COMMUNICATED with in this film, like a conversation was happening visually and thematically as well as verbally. Bank’s communication with herself and her life, with Donnelly, the attempt at open sustained and constructive communication between different nations of the world, the effort at understanding and the nature of shared ideas with the aliens, even how the concept of communication as we humans understand it is called into question: ALL of these are layered together to form a beautiful and personal message that will no doubt mean different things to different viewers. But the fact that this film will reach you on that level remains. What the message is is not as important as the fact that it was successfully communicated to you personally. It is the successful communication that matters. To the aliens, to Dr. Banks, and to us the viewer. Some go to a film and leave feeling ambivalent, like the film had nothing to say, that it really wasn’t about anything. That it told a story with no purpose. This is not that film.
Go see. Go listen. Go communicate.