Friday, November 11, 2016

'Arrival' Is Both Sci-Fi Spectacle And Art House Head Trip




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

It's an interesting time for a movie like Arrival. Had I seen it a week ago, and not the day after the beginning of the apocalypse election, my reaction to it may have been different. But after the events of this week it's hard not to view a story about a relatively measured response to an alien arrival as anything other than pure fantasy.

But, of course it's fantasy; it's a movie! And a big reason we go to the movies is to escape. I will admit, sitting in that theater for two hours, free from post-election worries and the constant updates in my Facebook feed, was the best I'd felt in almost two days.

So, yeah, Arrival may seem a little laughable, considering the direction the world is going. But I'm doing my best to view a scenario where the first words out of the President's mouth aren't, "I don't care if this is unprecedented. They came here illegally! And also, how can we be sure they aren't Muslims? BLOW THEM UP!" as hopeful and not naive.

As a matter of fact, we never see the President of the United States. Instead, this story about twelve monolithic spacecrafts that have landed at various spots around the world focuses, primarily, on the scientists, soldiers, and governmental grunts who decide the most important thing they can do is get an answer to the question "Why are you here?"

To do that, they recruit Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist. Having suffered a tremendous loss, she's lonely and brooding, with nothing to lose. With Adams' pale face and wistful performance, Louise comes off as a ghost in her own world. Why not take a trip to the middle of Montana to enter a spaceship?

She's paired up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. When the two first meet, she argues that language is the bedrock of humanity, while he argues that science is. (She's right. There's no science without language, dude.) While he's got a lot of questions he'd like these aliens to answer, Louise reminds him it might be best to stick to the basics, like names, before jumping into quantum physics.

Arrival starts off at a pretty fast clip; it doesn't take long before Louise and Ian are donning hazmat suits and entering that ship. That scene, while definitely bringing to mind movies like 2001 and Close Encounters, stills manages to feel completely new, as the laws of gravity are twisted, and the scientists enter a cavelike room that resembles nothing else if not a movie theater.

I was impressed with director Denis Villenueve's use of music in last year's Sicario, where Jóhann Jóhannsson's score felt like a pulse, driving the intensity of several scenes. Jóhannsson returns here, and the score has a similar effect, enveloping the viewer in an alien realm.

The aliens, which are eventually called heptapods, look a little like giant hands were molded into squids. Louise quickly figures out it would make more sense to try and learn a visual language than a verbal one. She is eventually able to decode the aliens' written language, which resembles a kind of circular Rorschach inkblot, but the movie, unfortunately, skims over just how she does that, instead relegating the breakthrough to a moment of narration over a montage.

That's disappointing because up to that point, the movie really does center on the slow but still exciting process of discovery and revelation, free from conflict. Instead, the movie almost gets lost in a subplot involving soldiers who view the aliens as nothing but a threat, and rising fear around the world.

But I'll give that a pass because why the soldiers do what they do is still central to the one of the film's central themes, namely, the power of language, and how words can drive people to do some pretty crazy things. (There I go, bringing up the election again!)

Arrival's advertisements aren't hiding the fact that there's a twist in the movie. I'm not going to spoil it, but will say I imagine some people are going to come out of it scratching their heads, especially if they're used to linear storytelling. For me, I was glad the use of flashbacks and Louise's soft-focus memories of walking through grass meant more than just proof that Villenueve has seen a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Arrival walks a delicate balance between science fiction spectacle and art house head trip, which explains why it was released during awards season, and not amongst the summer blockbusters. It raises some really interesting questions about time and the human experience that requires a lot more thinking than something like Independence Day does, and I hope it succeeds, because if a movie like this can become a hit in our current landscape, there might be hope for the future.

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