November 12, 2016

'Arrival' emerges as a great science fiction movie, and it comes just in time.

Arrival, a new alien-encounter drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, could not have arrived at a better moment. As the nation both writhes in despairing agony and luxuriates in triumphant glee (depending on your politics), Arrival, which unsentimentally champions global unity, offers a balm, a glimmer of light in the morass of darkness and ugliness that has hovered over the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In the film, Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who lives in Seattle (or what appears to be Seattle). One day she walks into her classroom and begins a lecture on Portuguese, despite a surprisingly low turnout of students, but is interrupted by frantic news reports of an alien invasion: Twelve “spaceships” have landed in various parts of the world, the nearest one somewhere in Montana. 

But these aren’t the spaceships of War of the Worlds or any schlocky 1950s sci-fi classic. They’re enormous, monolithic, Stonehengey shell-like vessels that silently, stoically hover over the ground. As the military might of various empires reacts with knee-jerk panic and paranoia, Louise becomes a pawn in the U.S. government’s attempt to communicate with our visitors. (Forest Whitaker shows up as a grim but sympathetic colonel, trying to appease his superiors but also trying to listen to Louise’s theories about how to communicate with these alien beings.)

But these tall, grey aliens, which stand on four rail-thin legs and have long, tendril-like tentacles on their heads, use a language no one understands, and Louise, who teams up with a scientist named Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), must slowly figure out a few words and teach them some of her own. Meanwhile, various other world powers scramble to do the same, and become increasingly afraid when they do begin to understand the language of these other-worldly creatures.

Arrival opens with a  gloomy shot of Louise’s living room, perhaps at dusk, because we see two wine glasses and a half-empty bottle on a little table in the corner. Her house overlooks what appears to be the Puget Sound, and the shot is remarkably silent, until the music—an elegy of sustained strings—ushers in feelings of sadness we do not yet understand. 

The movie ends in that room too, yet now the image swells with meaning because of what’s happened in between. And everything that happens in Arrival feels right, nearly flawless, from the images of the humans making contact, to the global tension that builds as widespread fear takes hold. Arrival emerges as a great science fiction movie: a big, smart, mass appeal kind of film that succeeds marvelously as a genre piece, as a meditation on life and death and time and the nature of language, and as a movie that plays with time in surprising ways. 

The director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and the scenarist, Eric Heisserer, don’t use time manipulation as a gimmick. Rather, they question the nature of time and how we understand it, without getting bogged down in overcomplicated language. Arrival is more poetry than theory. The movie builds toward something powerful, inevitable, and shattering: that’s the kind of grand emotion, which comes from the careful accumulation of smaller, subtler emotions, that we should expect from and delight in particularly from major films. 

Perhaps Arrival will be too slow-moving and thoughtful for some who might be expecting a more action-packed movie. But Arrival isn’t Independence Day. This is not a movie about malicious creatures from outer space: it’s a movie about the malicious pervasiveness of bad information, and how assumptions and breakdowns in communication not only paralyze us, but pit us against one another, often with grave consequences. This is The Day the Earth Stood Still for the 21st century, but it’s also Solaris (1972), Tarkovsky’s pensive, somnambulant masterpiece about space and time and death. 

Like the scientist Kris in Solaris, who has lost his wife but keeps seeing her on the spacecraft, Louise is haunted by tragedy too: the death of her daughter. We see mother and daughter in flashback, shards of a happier life that we know is doomed: them playing in the backyard, wading in a pond, the little girl doing her homework, the little girl becoming a teenager and wondering about why her parents split, the teenager receiving a shattering diagnosis, and then, the agony of the hospital bed, and Louise bending over her daughter’s lifeless body in despair. 

Amy Adams immediately draws us in as someone who’s suffered the kind of loss you don’t really get over. And unlike the Sandra Bullock-vehicle Gravity, which was a sumptuous but indulgently sappy entertainment, Arrival doesn’t withhold this dead-child information to be used against us later. Louise’s loss is known to us virtually from the start, and while it certainly shapes her character, it is not a plot device on which the emotional beats of the movie hang. Nevertheless, as Louise throws herself into her daunting linguistic project, the recollections of her child keep breaking through, sometimes in dreams that are increasingly affected by her interactions with the aliens, whom Ian has nicknamed Abbot and Costello. 

Some science fiction movies grasp for greatness and, against all odds, become masterpieces (like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is simultaneously pretentious and brilliant). Others fail, like Interstellar, which is an expertly made but overblown film, one that tries very, very hard. When we can feel the effort, and when the results are so earnest yet incomprehensible, our reaction (or mine at least) is to pull away. Even at its most ponderous moments, a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind reaches into us and pulls us out of ourselves. 

That’s the work that great science fiction can do, and Arrival indeed makes that kind of personal contact with its viewers. We are breathlessly pulled into the story; we delight in the ways this movie surprises us; we feel the emotions as palpably as if the stories were our own. And in the darkened theater, this story belongs to us.

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