Author: JoAnne Hyde
Date: November 10, 2016

SYNOPSIS: When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team--lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams)--are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers--and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, provides a cerebral, thought-provoking vehicle for an award-worthy performance by Amy Adams. Filmed on location in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Bas-Saint-Laurent, Quebec, Canada, Villeneuve contrasts a lyrical, quiet cinematic style with the intensity of potential global conflict. The result may be a bit slow-moving for some, but I particularly enjoyed the poetic tone of many of the film’s scenes.

When 12 mysterious alien spacecraft position themselves over various locations across the globe, famed linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is sought out by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try to decode the aliens’ language. Also on board is mathematician, astro-physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Together they take on the daunting task of trying to figure out why the entities have made first contact with humanity.

The spacecraft are immense, 1500 foot tall, black, pod-like structures with few surface details. Dr. Banks arrives at the Montana landing site confused and alarmed, to learn that the pods open from the bottom every 18 hours, allowing access to the aliens, dubbed heptapods by humans. They appear behind a transparent barrier, which they “write” on, and seem to welcome attempts to communicate. Here I give kudos to Villeneuve for avoiding the standard, bald, toddler-shaped, big-headed interpretations from many “first contact” films. He also avoided the other alternative of growling, menacing, monster-like beings. The heptapods appear first emerging from a mist-like environment and have no resemblance whatsoever to any anthropoid creature.

Clouds, fog, darkness, and mist are key to cinematic visuals, enhancing the inherent mystery of the story and increasing suspense. Of course, most of the world wants to destroy the visitors even though they give no indication of being an invasive force. For Banks and Donnelly, then, it becomes a race against time to prevent disaster. Interwoven within the story line are memories of Bank’s daughter, Hannah, adding an overriding poignancy to the story.

In reality, Arrival is about time. To understand the story, one must let go of a linear interpretation of time. The hepatod’s written language consists of circular symbols upon which even the smallest deviation represents meaning. As the film progresses, you realize that the plot itself does not unfold in a linear fashion, but in an amalgamation of past, present, and future. At one point, Louise poses a question to Ian: “If you could see your entire life from beginning to end, would you change anything?” Intriguing, and basically, unanswerable.

After a few tense confrontations, the audience learns the heptapod’s purpose, but don’t expect clarity. The answer, like the mist-enshrouded landscape, is vague.

So, how will this play out with audiences? Reactions were quite mixed from the preview audience. Some found it unbearably slow-paced, others loved it, and some just found it confusing. I, personally, liked the artistry of the cinematography and the complexity of the ideas involved. The film’s concept is partly based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or world view. And, yes, I had to look that up!

My guess is that it will debut behind Almost Christmas, which opens the same day, as audiences choose fluff over substance. Will Arrival have legs? I think that will depend on audiences’ expectations concerning space alien films and the thoughtful reality of the actual film. I for one, hope that artistry and depth will prevail. - JoAnne Hyde


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