Friday, November 4, 2016


 4.5 / 5 

A woman loses her daughter to a long and painful illness in the opening moments of Denis Villeneuve's grand, ferociously intelligent science-fiction movie Arrival.  In the scenes that follow the death, the same woman, a college professor played by Amy Adams, is trying to teach a class of linguistics students, but they cannot focus on what she's saying because the world has just changed.

Most everyone who sees Arrival will be familiar with the moment the world changes.  We remember when it did that on a late-summer day.  We know the way that you hear something that your mind doesn't quite process, then you sense there's something bigger going on, then you find out the facts and you still can't process them because the rules that have been in place your whole life have been broken with a catastrophic suddenness.

That's what happens for Louise Banks, the character Adams plays in this marvelous, expectation-shattering movie.  She has spent her life studying languages, and now the government wants her to work for them to help unravel the explanation-defying incidents that have happened simultaneously around the globe.

Twelve large objects have descended from space and have parked themselves in various locations.  It's a setup reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi classic Childhood's End, but instead of waiting for generations to learn what's inside the spacecraft, the aliens in Arrival aren't keeping themselves invisible.  But there's a problem: They don't speak any of the languages known to humans.  They can't understand us, and we can't understand them.

That's where Adams' linguistics professor comes in.  She's teamed up with Ian Donnelly, a mathematician played by Jeremy Renner, in the hope that at least one of them -- the one who speaks or the one who calculates -- will be able to communicate with the aliens.  They need to answer a simple question, one that has been the backbone of science-fiction from the beginning: Why are you here and what do you want?

The Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) who has brought them both in makes it clear that if they can't get that question answered, one of those 11 other nations will, which will be bad for the U.S. and bad for the world.  Louise and Ian take the threat seriously, and head up into the spaceship to find out what they can learn.

What's most interesting about Arrival, the reason I'm eager to make this a movie I return to time and time again, is that its script by Eric Heisserer, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, has no interest in solving the central puzzle in a way that follows standard Hollywood conventions.  The script and Villeneuve's realization of it openly defy the usual expectations: Only once are guns even fired in this film, and then at a distance; there are no CG-laden skirmishes with the aliens, no thrillingly edited chases, no battles.

There is, instead, intelligence and curiosity.  Banks does not learn the aliens' language easily, but as she does, she becomes overwhelmed by the task and its consequences.  This is a film about smart people doing smart things for smart reasons.  Adams and Renner both excel in the portrayal of their intelligent, committed characters.  Indeed, if there is a minor flaw to be found in Arrival its in its almost overwhelming braininess: The revelations and their underlying explanations (and this is the rare film that takes time to explain what is happening) are so impressively based in the nuances of language and communication that they are sometimes hard to keep up with.

And yet, like any really great mystery, the answer is right in front of us from the very beginning, hidden, at least partly, in the form of how the aliens communicate.  As the film progresses, it reveals even more about their subtleties and meanings, which weigh on the plot in unexpected ways.  There's also a beautiful design to their language, which contains a secret that, when it's finally revealed, is both so obvious that it makes total sense -- and so unexpected that the direction in which it takes Arrival is turns out to be similarly complex and simple.  It leads to a climax of remarkable beauty and restraint.

Arrival is not the film I expected it would be, and that is its biggest and most enticing surprise.

Although Arrival plays out against a grand scale, with no less than the fate of Earth (and maybe even more) hanging in the balance, it is also an impressively quiet and thoughtful movie.  It's intense, but not in the same way of Villeneuve's Sicario (which was one of last year's best movies); even though the two films share a similar propulsive force, Arrival and Sicario could hardly be less similar, which makes Villeneuve's accomplishment perhaps even more impressive: How could one director create films with such vastly different approaches and perspectives?

The bleak hopelessness of Sicario is nowhere to be found in Arrival.  Instead, this a movie suffused with kindness, patience and even tenderness toward humanity and certainly toward its central characters, who grow and change in surprising ways.

Although it's not a political allegory -- it's way too smart to be concerned with something as petty as politics -- there is a certain irony to arrival of Arrival. It's debuting in theaters just days after the most contentious and unpleasant election in modern U.S. history comes to an end.  By eschewing the simpler approach it could have taken in telling a story of an alien invasion, it underscores a more important point: When it's all said and done, we're all in this together.

Are we ever.

For better or for worse.

Viewed Nov. 3, 2016 -- Los Angeles Film School


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