‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new Denis Villeneuve film Arrival is one of the most interesting, absorbing films I’ve seen in years. It is a science fiction flick, based on a classic novella dealing with time and remembrance in ways that we have seldom seen on screen. If you think that might be boring, I was totally absorbed for a several hours by the tension and the passion shown.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a top professor of linguistics, begins the movie with a remembrance of her beloved daughter who died as a teen. It is a brief but moving collage as we see an infant turn into a cute little girl, then turn into a child who, at about 8, tells her mother she loves her and, a few years later, that she hates her. And we see her death with Banks grieving.
Then we see Banks at work at the university on the day that 12 alien vessels, which the military dubs “shells,” land at cities all over the globe. Banks is charged with leading the American team to learn their language. She teams up with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist, who wants to learn their science. At the start, they’re combative, with Louise saying that civilization is based on language, Ian that it’s based on science.
But they become the two leaders of the group that actually does succeed in starting a dialogue with the aliens, called “Heptapods” because they have seven large legs. A large portion of the film is devoted to understanding a species whose view of time is different from ours.
Humans believe (and this is a major section of our physics) that time is linear; that it flows from the past to the present. The Heptapods believe that you move through time and, as shown in their writing, which is essentially a single drawing representing a thought or an entire concept (meaning they know how it will end before they begin), and they can deal with knowing the future.
With a support from Ian, Louise begins to converse with them. Uniquely, for films, we also see that she is getting backup from other experts. I liked the fact that it was not just one person figuring everything out. But Louise is unique; remembrances of her daughter are singularly vital, as their conversations provide necessary clues to finding a way to prevent a world war because of fear of the aliens.
And then we discover something truly unique about the remembrances that underlines precisely what the aliens want.
The movie, which does have some action, has a subplot as well — based on the paranoia that ensues because of knee-jerk reaction and fear dealing with the intentions of the aliens that combines with misunderstandings because of language. Those keep us on the edge of our seats even as the deeper meanings come through.
The cast is really good. Adams is exceptional. She has always been a fine actress, but here she carries the film. Her feelings are raw; her grief and her will to learn keep shining through. She wants to learn, wants to help, and fights through her memories, learning from them as she goes.
Renner gives a huge assist. He manages to be wonderfully supportive as she often breaks rules and goes her own way. That they wind up with strong feelings for each other, despite their intellectual differences, seems wonderful. Forest Whitaker as the colonel in charge of the operation is both strong and sensitive, another excellent performance by the actor.
This is an exciting movie that will have you thinking a lot once you leave. I expected it to be good; it has gotten universal raves from critics. But it is better than that.
There is a branch of science fiction movies that require concentration and thinking. Christopher Nolan’s films Inception and Interstellar are examples, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the granddaddy of them all. Arrival is better than all of them (although I do have a soft spot for the earlier movie).
This is a movie for adults, in the sense that it presents a lot to think about… there is nothing that a child should not see, but the ideas are complex. If you like good movies, particularly of the science fiction blend, you should see it. And if you just like good movies, this one is really good.
See it. It is one of the best films this year.