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Review: Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Premise: When extraterrestrials arrive on Earth, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the government to initiate communication and determine the aliens’ intentions.

What Works: In the past few years the science fiction genre has matured. What has frequently been an excuse for special effects and mindless action set pieces has rediscovered its intellectual roots with movies like Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian. Science fiction films often resemble puzzles or philosophical thought experiments that play out concerns about technology and the human experience. Arrival resembles an alien invasion movie but at its root this is about technology and communication. In the opening of the film, twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft land in various parts of the world with one arriving in Montana. The military enlists a linguist to make contact with the aliens, decipher their language, and deduce their intentions. Arrival takes on the nuances of language and communication in all of its complexity; in most science fiction movies the human beings and the extraterrestrials coincidentally speak equivalent languages with similar graphemes and grammatical structures. That’s usually reflective of the aliens themselves who are typically portrayed as more or less humanoid. In Arrival, the extraterrestrials have octopus-like bodies, their vocalizations are like dolphin calls, and the alien dialect is more like eastern languages. As the humans begin to make sense of the alien language the scientists discover that it does not abide a linear form. And in this respect, Arrival is able to explore the link between language and our perception of reality. The language of the extraterrestrials reflects not only their culture but also their sense of personhood and their sense of time. And as the scientists absorb themselves in the alien dialect they begin to see the world from a new perspective. These are much more complicated ideas than we usually get in a Hollywood science fiction film and Arrival is a thoughtful picture. It is also optimistic in a way that isn’t hokey. The threat of violence is ever present and the film includes moments in which tensions bubble over but unlike so many other sci-fi movies, and unlike most Hollywood films in general, Arrival is about staving off a violent confrontation and achieve a mutual understanding. That makes this film unique and the filmmakers put the audience on the side of cooperation and empathy.

What Doesn’t: Arrival is about as far away from Hollywood sci-fi entertainment as it could be. Most of what passes for mainstream science fiction are really fantasy stories with technology; Arrival has more in common with Contact than it does with Star Wars. But Arrival is also different from genuine science fiction titles like Interstellar and The Martian. As technical or science oriented as those films were, they also adhered to the filmmaking styles of populist entertainment. By contrast, Arrival is not as accessible. It is a more cerebral film and it is challenging to watch because it demands that the audience put some effort into following the story. Arrival is slow moving; that’s not a detriment to the picture but a stylistic choice that suits the story. But the Transformers audience may be put off by Arrival’s lack of action and its serious tone. One retrograde aspect of Arrival is its characterization of the military. Like a lot of sci-fi movies, from Piranha to Armageddon to Avatar, the military of Arrival is presented as violent and reactionary. This isn’t entirely fair to the military of today which is almost as involved in nation-building as it is in combat. It’s a cliché element in what is otherwise a smart and original film.

Bottom Line: Arrival is an excellent example of what science fiction can do. While it isn’t necessarily built to please the Friday night audience, Arrival is thoughtful and engaging and unlike virtually anything else Hollywood is putting out at the moment.

Episode: #622 (November 20, 2016)