Thursday, November 10, 2016
We don’t often see science fiction movies as cerebral as “Arrival.”
Even “Interstellar” relied on a certain amount of action scenes and contrived peril to keep the narrative moving. This film, directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is largely a rumination on how language affects our thoughts and perceptions. It’s an often exhilarating experience that largely eschews obvious thriller-movie moments.
If it’s possible to do a film on an alien invasion of Earth that’s the polar opposite of the “Independence Day” flicks, then here it is.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a language genius brought in by the military to help communicate with the extraterrestrials. Their ebony ships, shaped like large concave discs, suddenly appear one day, looming over a dozen spots on Earth. Banks is assigned to the team working the Montana ship, headed up by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, doing an annoying and entirely unnecessary accent of vaguely New England vintage).
She’s partnered up with Ian, a physicist played by Jeremy Renner. Normally in these types of movies the male character is the focus and the woman is relegated to the moon that reflects his light. Here it’s pretty much the opposite; Ian is constantly around and supportive, but he’s there to facilitate her journey.
They’re both lonely academic types, but she’s further burdened by some memories of a failed marriage and daughter, about which I’ll say no more.
The aliens are left deliberately vague. Described as “heptapods,” they appear to be giant seven-tentacled creatures with no visible faces. They are viewed only in shadowy fog through a glass wall inside their ship, into which the humans are permitted once every 18 hours. The aliens don’t appear to be violent, but nobody’s been able to get through to them. Their language appears to be a wave of rumbles and screeches that no one can figure out.
Louise determines to use visual aids, reckoning that written communication doesn’t always stand in for how it’s pronounced. The heptapods can produce strange, inky spirals that she and Ian begin to puzzle out.
Meanwhile, other nations are leery of the alien threat, egged on by a populace riven with paranoia. Are the aliens here to ask something of the humans? To give something? To provide a test of some sorts?
“Arrival” is the sort of the movie that’s challenging to review without giving too big a peek behind the curtain. It’s a slow-moving film that some people will find dreamy and intoxicating, and others may become bored with it. It stimulates the mind more than the heart, and that’s a nice change of pace.