Sunday, November 13, 2016

On the Big Screen: ARRIVAL (2016)

It's nice to see Hollywood spend some money on science fiction that isn't space opera, but it's not as if "first contact" isn't a familiar subgenre already. The really good thing about Dennis Villeneuve's film is how it problematizes that contact and explains the problems involved in comfortably dramatic fashion. We start with twelve contact lens-shaped alien ships appearing in apparently random parts of the world, including Montana USA. An Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) invites linguist and translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to interpret what the seven-limbed creatures (their vaguely cthulhoid appearance keeps our guard up) have tried to say so far. The colonel wants to cut to the chase and find out why the Heptapods are here, but Banks explains quite clearly how the building blocks of conversation have to be assembled before we can ask the colonel's question in comprehensible fashion. Quickly concluding that talking to the Heptapods may be impossible, Banks starts to teach them written English, and in turn learns the Heptapod language, written with natural ink in circular, distinctively blotted sentences that hang in the creatures' thick atmosphere or stick to the glass partition separating them from the humans. This allows the beginnings of communication, but specific meanings of "words" still need to be nailed down before false conclusions are drawn. In the most obvious case, the Heptapods seem to be saying that they're here to "offer weapon" to the different countries they're visiting -- including not just the U.S. but China, Russia, Pakistan, etc. -- and urging us to "use weapon." Are they really talking about a "weapon," and what do they mean by using it? The authoritarian countries, somehow led by a Chinese general rather than a party secretary, conclude that the Heptapods are hostile and prepare for military action. American instincts are along the same lines, but Banks bucks authority, backed by sympathetic physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to get crucial clarification from the Montana Heptapods they've nicknamed, in a nod to cinematic language games of the past, Abbott and Costello....

I want to be more careful about spoilers with Arrival than I am with superhero films that, as components of larger projects, may only be comprehensible in contexts established by spoilers. Arrival happily stands alone and deserves to have the integrity of its surprises respected. I'll tease rather than spoil by warning you that the film toys with certain movie conventions in a manner that first seems disappointingly derivative -- one particular attempt at character development will seem to have been ripped off blatantly from another recent sci-fi film with a female protagonist -- but gains fresh meaning once the story resolves itself. I'm not sure I entirely comprehend the full story -- it's unclear to me whether an important attribute of the heroine is acquired or innate, though I lean toward the former -- but in this case, at least, that doesn't mean the picture is incomprehensible. While its portrayal of military-intelligence types is pretty cliched, Arrival overall is a film that respects your intelligence and deserves respect in return. Villeneuve directs in a classic widescreen style, with cinematography by Bradford Young, and even if it's not a space opera it's often spectacular to look at. I'm not ready to anoint Amy Adams an Oscar front-runner, but I appreciate why people appreciate her work as a character defined primarily by brains and I can't honestly say I've seen much better acting this year. It's nice to see her in an alternate universe she can share with Jeremy Renner (see also American Hustle) when their regular "cinematic universe" haunts are off-limits to each other. In a way, that makes the world of Arrival more real, no matter how fantastic a story it tells.

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