July 3, 2020

Aliens communicate in the moment of ‘Arrival’

Movie-goers have one week left to catch all of the year’s Best Picture nominees. Knowing one of those is a science fiction film with the emotional musings of philosophy blended with the whirling narrative structure of Kurt Vonnegut is certainly an exciting and reassuring reason to see it.

“Arrival” tells the story of Louise, played by Amy Adams, a renowned linguist who is called upon by the American military after a series of extraterrestrial crafts appear all over the world. She is taken to a location in Montana, the site of the American landing, where she is teamed up with a physicist, played by Jeremy Renner, and a military colonel, played by Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker’s character tasks the two scientists with the objective of discovering a line of communication between them and the occupants of the mysterious craft. The characters quickly learn they are just one part of a global effort to understand the reason behind the presence of the ships and that they have to establish contact before human curiosity turns hostile.

Denis Villenuve (“Prisoners” and “Sicario”) directs the screenplay by Eric Heisserer (“The Thing” and “Lights Out”), based on the short story, “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang. Villenuve brings a tactile gravity to the story, which serves to ground it in the real world.

Pieces of the film are shot handheld, which helps to create a vast contrast between the scattered energy of the humans on the ground and the looming stillness of the giant, monolithic pods. There are several shots looking up at the craft or with the ships in the background of shots of the characters. The simple compositions set the framework for a story about humanity that also happens to contain alien and science fiction elements.

The visual language and ideas of the film also harken back to well-known science fiction films, including “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Contact.” Although the tone of “Arrival” is slightly different and more centralized on Adams’s character, the story deals with a philosophical underpinning, which is apparent in those other films.

Questions of human purpose and our relationship to both ourselves and the stars are explored in complex but understandable ways. There is a somewhat more peaceful relationship between the humans and the aliens, contrary to the popular depiction of UFOs making their way to Earth, but that relationship is hinted at right in the title. The film isn’t called “Invasion of…” or “Attack of…” but rather the filmmakers settled on an intention-neutral one, which creates an enigmatic tension and simultaneously establishes both conflict and curiosity.

Adams is brilliant in the leading role and shines as essentially the singular, female character. She brings an intelligence and an honesty to her character that draws the audience into the story. It is through her character that the plot and necessity of maintaining a peaceful line of communication is eventually understood. She is the key to the story connecting with the viewer on an emotional level.

Aside from an ally in Renner’s character, the world around Louise is a swirling, fearful and frustrated storm of men ready to arm the weapons. She serves as a liaison between the mythic creatures and the frightened humans.

The film handles its subject matter well and tells the story in a way that keeps the audience guessing. It presents a clear takeaway message, which is that of the importance of communication. It also flirts with the concept of time, of beginnings and ends, in ways that resonate deep in the soul. In the great tradition of both science-fiction and classic drama, it sets a story about fundamental necessities on a larger-than-life stage, upping the narrative stakes for entertainment value but ensuring that essential concepts are absorbed.

Its only noticeable drawback as a film is that the profound totality of it falters slightly, causing the grandeur of the set-up’s thematic elements to feel left behind at the film’s conclusion. It is a satisfying one, but one devoid of the slack-jawed awe promised by the scope of the incidents.

However, profound sci-fi, sci-fi with ideas and sci-fi that elevates its subject-matter is always welcome.

Michael Williamson is a communications and electronic media and film double major, graduating in May who plans to go on to attend graduate school in film history or communication and media.

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