Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Arrival (2016)

I'm not sure when it started but, in recent years, it has become customary for a smart science fiction film to grab the Academy's attention. This is quite a change of pace, as usually sci-fi stories where relegated to the technical categories. But films like “Gravity,” “Her,” “District 13,” and “The Martian” have made in-roads with the Academy by emphasizing grounded approaches, intellectual writing, and bravado film making over neat special effects and big explosion. (Though they tend to have those too.) This year's Oscar friendly sci-fi story is “Arrival.” Like many of those previously mentioned films, “Arrival” has also managed to impress critics and general audiences, an Oscar favorite that people actually saw.

Around the world, at twelve different locations, twelve alien spacecrafts have appeared. Their motives are unknown and the citizens of Earth are, understandably, put at ill ease. Floating in the air via unknown means, the crafts open themselves up to human inspection. In America, linguist Louise Banks is called in to help communicate with the aliens. Inside the ships, she sees beings that are unlike anything on Earth. As she attempts to decipher the visitors' language, and figure out the purpose of their journey, Louise has to deal with various political forces and the strange effect those inside the spacecraft are having on her mind.

“Arrival” belongs soundly to the first contact subgenre, sci-fi stories devoting to asking what will happens when humans meet aliens for the first time. The visitors are usually peaceful, separating these films from the alien invasion genre, though sometimes still unnerving. In stories such as this, the aliens usually have universal translators or just speak English. “Arrival” considers a very likely point. Aliens, if they exist and if they chose to contact us, probably wouldn't speak our language. Indeed, their very conception of language might be totally different from our own. Communication would probably be the most important aspect of such a momentous encounter.

In keeping with its grounded approach, “Arrival” eschews a future setting or earthly space travel. A further example of the film's commitment to plausible science fiction can be seen in its aliens and the culture associated with them. The aliens are truly alien, their technology beyond human understanding. Their ships are simple shapes, flying by unknown means. Due to the seven phalanges on their limbs, the visitors are named heptapod. They appear mostly as smoky silhouettes, lacking traditionally human features. They resemble land locked octopuses, as well as the giant spiders from director Denis Villeneuve's previous film, “Enemy.” (Especially in a sequence where one appears suddenly in Louise's bed room.) Adding to their unearthly appearance are the the smoke rings they extrude, forming into the letters of their language. The symbols float in the air against a glass wall, like something out a dream. Which is fitting, considering the role dreams play in “Arrival.”

“Arrival's” scientific approach is one of its greatest strength but also something of a weakness. The film is a little too detached at first. Amy Adams' Louise Banks seems to be a hyper logical protagonist. She's awed by the sight of aliens but can't seem to form meaningful human contact. The irony here is obvious, that someone who understands language for a living has such trouble communicating herself. This is by design, as watching Louise open up to the emotion is one of the film's most touching attributes. Amy Adams has the tricky task of playing the character's detachment without making her too alien to the audience. Adams is pretty good at this acting thing so she succeeds. The cast features some other strong players, as Jeremy Renner brings some humor to his part and Forrest Whittaker is gruff without being hateful.

The cultural ramifications of alien contact and the mystery of unraveling their language would probably be enough for most movies. Yet “Arrival's” screenwriter of Eric Heisserer has even weightier ideas in mind. You see, the heptapods do not perceive time in a linear fashion. Like Doctor Manhattan from “Watchmen,” they perceive the past, present and future simultaneously. This leads up to a pretty big twist that fundamentally changes the way we see Amy Adams' character. Turns out, early scenes that seemed to have one meaning actually mean something entirely different. It's not the only flashy trick the writer pulls off. The climax essentially has a plot resolving bit of information being flatly reveal to a character. It should be cheating. In a way, it still is. But a combination of Villeneuve's direction, Adams' performance, and the balance of tone makes it work.

While the images are impressive and the ideas are big, “Arrival” takes a while to pull you in. The film was about half way over before I really grasp what it was going for. It's not until the script decides to be a little more straightforward with the viewer that “Arrival” started to work for me. That's not to diminish the number of things it does very well, such as the very impressive visuals, strong performances, novel ideas, and a tricky script that enjoys playing games with the audience. Not quite the achievement it's been made out to be, a film about the need for peaceful communication and reaching out to other cultures is another theme that should resonate right now. [7/10]

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