Saturday, January 7, 2017


Arrival (2016) Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer. Based on Short Story: "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde Run Time: 116 min. U.S.A. Science Fiction, Fantasy

Films about encounters with aliens from space are nothing new; Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Thing From Another World, Galaxy Quest, This Island Earth, It Came From Outer Space, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, Independence Day and 20 Million Miles to Earth come to mind, to name a few. What sets one apart from another is taking a different approach to the topic. Arrival, which arrived in theaters back in November, does that, examining the encounter as a linguistics challenge.

When 12 monolithic spaceships show up at different locations around the globe, the U.S. military, in the form of Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker), come to Louise Banks (Amy Adams) for help. They’ve had some brief encounters with the aliens, but they don’t understand what they’re saying, so they come back to Banks, who had helped translate some Farsi for the military earlier, to see what she can make of their language.

The aliens' language is pretty hard to decipher in Arrival.

Joining Banks on the encounters is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, also recruited by Weber. Over a period of months, Banks is able to decipher the aliens' language, but she is not the only one working on the project. There are eleven other groups around the world working on the same issue, but with different interpretations of the aliens' language and that spells trouble.
Since the film is still in theaters, I won’t go any further into the plot than that, except to say there’s more to the story than the alien encounter and its aftermath. Louise has a painful past that also impacts her and how she works through the problems presented by the encounter.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a renowned linguist called into help with an Alien language in Arrival.

While that might be intriguing enough, the film takes things a step further, and maybe a step too far, as it makes an obvious effort to play with the concept of time; making it seem non-linear. Is that a memory from the past or the remembrance of a future event? That makes things extra and overly complicated.

Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist also brought in on the encounter.

The acting is pretty good. All three of the leads do good work here. It is well-known by now that Adams is being considered for the Golden Globes and there is buzz about the Academy Awards, you know because NBC wants us to think the Golden Globes are pre-cursors to the Oscars. Jeremy Renner, who is perhaps best known as Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, proves that he is a good actor as well. Whitaker hardly ever disappoints and that’s true again in Arrival. I don't think the man gets enough of the accolades he deserves. The minor characters are good as well with Michael Stuhlbarg making the most of his somewhat stereotypical role as a CIA agent.

Forest Whitaker as Colonel Webber in charge of the U.S. encounter.

Any film with aliens requires a certain amount of special effects, but this film seems to keep them reined in. Arrival is not as dependent on them as say Close Encounters or Independence Day. Instead, the film is more introspective than those, making it less dependent on really wowing you into submission. The aliens, who for the most part are never seen in detail, reminded me of Octopuses. This is reinforced as they appear to communicate with humans through an inky substance they excrete.

But the film fails on several fronts. To begin with, the film never really explains how Louise does what she does. I know, linguistics sounds about as exciting as dishwater, but when that is the main focus of a film, a cursory explanation, even if it’s made up, might have helped me connect with her better. I see that she gets it done, but I’m not sure how. All I know is that if you spend enough time at something the code will get broken. Now Ian does help with the breakthrough, but his explanation is more math than anything else, which frankly makes it more confusing than ever. I don’t like it when films try to bowl you over with a lot of $13.99-sounding words to hide the fact that it can’t explain what is really happening in the story.

The film sort of ends without really resolving its two main issues. The aliens just disappear all at once, so that problem resolves itself. There are vague reasons why they came in the first place, but nothing concrete, though one gets the idea they’ll definitely be back. The film likes to credit them with bringing the world together, but we have that, it’s called the United Nations and it doesn’t work as well as it should. Aliens are not going to change that.

The time issue that the film sets up is sort of left dangling as well. One of the benefits of being able to look ahead, one would think, would be to know what pitfalls lie ahead and to avoid them, but that’s definitely not what Louise does. Even knowing what is going to happen in her life, because it has already happened, does not prevent Louise from making the same mistakes again. She seems to have figured out some things, we hear cryptic utterings, but we don’t know if that new knowledge will have any effect on her choices.

While I wanted to like Arrival, the film didn’t live up to my expectations. Louise is a likable character, but she goes on this great journey and ends up right back where she started, no better off than she was at the start. We as the audience unconsciously expect that our heroes and heroines will somehow grow or be changed by their experiences, but in this case Arrival does not meet that expectation.

I’ll give Arrival style points, but I could not recommend it to others.

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