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The ‘Arrival’ of the Aliens

Amy Adams tries talking to the extra-terrestrials

Nov. 22, 2016
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In Hollywood, if nowhere else in the cosmos, aliens descend from the ramps of their saucers, addressing onlookers in English. Perhaps the extra-terrestrial intruders listened intently to NPR as they drew their plans against us; if they are humanoids, they might even have enrolled an advance guard in English-as-a-second-language classes. Why do screenwriters imagine that intelligent aliens, if such beings are found to exist, think or communicate in ways easily comprehensible to us?

Arrival is intriguing for taking a different approach. Loosely derived from a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival concerns the abrupt appearance of 12 alien “shells” in widely scattered places around the world. To contend with the one that lands in Montana, no-nonsense Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) flies by helicopter to the home of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Known for her facility with human languages as well as her grasp of their social function, she is packed onto the chopper and tasked with talking to aliens whose manner of speaking, as heard in recordings, is a little like songs of the great whales.

Arrival makes good use of its modest budget. That alien shell resembles a giant gurken sliced in half and stood on end; it’s almost a negative space against the foggy overcast horizon. The aliens themselves are shadowy octopoids obscured in the murky atmosphere of their craft. Despite the brusque impatience of Col. Weber, Banks makes progress, not so much in understanding their spoken language but their written words, which materialize like ink jets from their tentacles and hang in the air as oddly curled shapes, each representing an idea, not unlike hieroglyphics.

As she continues her interstellar meeting of minds with the help of a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner), the outside world grows hostile. The stock market tumbles in the face of uncertainty; the president declares martial law—but that’s not enough for the porcine Rush Limbaugh-like radio talker who riles up the masses with his anti-government message of fear. A blurry photo of the aliens goes viral and triggers panic; like many things that go viral, the context is lacking. Meanwhile, across the world, China’s military leader, the implacable Gen. Shang, is massing his forces for an assault on the shell that landed near Shanghai.

Arrival’s performances are flat and the screenplay is burdened by a dreary subplot about Banks’ dead daughter that ultimately become meaningful but could have been better handled. It’s not a perfect film but it’s an interesting one, thoughtful on a subject that seldom finds its way into the heart of Hollywood, linguistics, and raising questions about the nature of time and its relation to reality.

Arrival

Amy Adams

Jeremy Renner

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Rated PG-13

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