Well, the title of this film could easily be announcing the start of the awards season as well as first contact with aliens. Amy Adams is a front-runner for acting honors and the film has an outside chance at being included on a honer list of nominees if the voting works out right. The last film I saw was the Mel Gibson directed “Hacksaw Ridge and along with this movie, we are now getting to the meat of the quality film season. “Arrival” is a cerebral science fiction film that manages to build tension with almost no violence at all, and it ponders some interesting questions about the nature of the planet and our future. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951 raised many of the same questions and used a similar style of tension to hold us in it’s thrall. “Arrival” has a story that is much different but themes that are similar and a tone that mirrors that sixty-five year old film precisely. We probably need that sort of message every half century or so.
Louise Banks is a linguist, who is recruited by the government to lead a team trying to communicate with the occupants of an alien craft that is located in one of twelve spots around the globe. The American team is working in Montana, a location that is remote enough to keep millions of people away, by also central enough that the whole country might feel threatened by the ship’s presence. If you remember the cover story used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you know that there might very well need to be secrecy when a first contact event takes place. The “X-Files” made the notion of secrecy a paranoid environment for intrigue, but this movie confronts the reality of what such an event would do to the planet. Panic, fear, riots and economic disruption of our way of life would be inevitable. The film shows these things only as news background though. The focus is not on how the social fabric of civilization might be torn by such an occurrence, but rather how it might be responded to by the leadership and scientific personnel that we trust.
I have a casual interest in linguistics as it relates to human communication. My problem is that I have no facility with language or patience with mathematics. So I am an outsider looking in on the process that was being explored here. I understood parts of it but frequently felt as if I should be getting more because after all, I am a communications person. Jeremy Renner is Adam’s counterpart from the math end of the team. As Ian Donnelly, he works with Louise to solve the puzzles of an alien language so that we as a planet can figure out whether to embrace the contact or fear it. The two of them have some great scenes where they in essence are acting against a screen, much like a giant aquarium, hoping to find a path and pattern to the linguistic puzzle. Adams must emote to light and early on through a hazmat suit. Inevitably, in order to make breakthroughs, the contact will have to be closer. In “Darmok”an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Captain must manage to communicate with a species that uses only metaphor. As complicated as that might be, this film quadruples the challenge because the communication issues involve four dimensions, and we ultimately discover that the key to understanding is in the dimension we have the least ability at the moment to function in.
There is a prologue sequence that at first seems to be setting up our main character. That five minute section establishes Adams as a person, but there is far more going on here than we first suspect. I always avoid spoilers but I feel safe in saying that the devastating sequence, nearly as effective as the opening of the film “Up” will be understood in greater depth as the movie goes on. Amy Adams is wonderful as she goes through a nightmare scenario, but also as she relives it in several spots in the film. In addition to the moments of wonder that she impresses us with, there are expressions of pain and memory that are just as significant. This film is very nicely put together by director Denis Villenevue, to give us a non-linear story that we don’t even realize is happening in front of us. There are however a few clues as we go through the film. The picture window that looks out on the property that Adams experiences the prologue events through, is nearly identical in shape and background as the window in the alien vessel. The disconcerting gravity and physics of entering the alien ship are similar to the distortion that comes in a dream or memory.
The music of the film is oppressive without being dour, and that gives the story a feeling of expectation that the visuals also live up to. It is a science fiction film, but not one based on spectacle. The ships are simple, the vision of technology is interesting and the alien design is not anthropomorphic but it is not frightening in the way we see in most films about invaders from another world. The thing that works the best in the story from my point of view is the depiction of human uncertainty. The various countries that have contact with the pods communicate through a network, but they also disengage and keep secrets. There are no “bad” guys per se, rather there are people making the best decision they can with the information available to them. The Chinese General who appears to be turning the contact into a conflict, is simply acting in the best interests of humanity as he sees it. The problem is that communication with the aliens is not the only communication problem that the governments and scientists face. Humans are limited in their ability to frame information by their experience. It takes a whole new kind of experience to change any perceptions.
There is not much humor in the film but there is a great deal of humanity. Not everything will be explained by the resolution of the story. There are blind spots and questions about how any of this could work. Having seen “Interstellar” for a second time just a few weeks ago, reminds me that there are tough questions that are hard to answer when you get to theoretical physics. I will say that I hope the answer to one of those questions is in fact a piece of humor found in the movie. I now want to check out the places in the world that Sheena Easton had a big hit on the radio in 1980.