Linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), attempting to communicate with….?
Ever since 1902, when French filmmaker Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon introduced us to “selenites” (insectoid moon aliens), movie fans have experienced every variety of “first encounters” with aliens through scifi movies. UFO films in particular have thrilled us with forbidding alien robots (1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still), winged saucers with death-ray periscopes (1953’s War of the Worlds), giant mind-bending holograms (1967’s Five Million Years to Earth), and huge oversized space ships (1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1996’s Independence Day). So after all of this, how can a scifi director deliver something fresh enough to fill us with the awe and wonder we first felt as kids watching these films?
Well, director Denis Villeneuve has brilliantly accomplished the feat in his film Arrival, by forcing us to experience a first encounter from the viewpoint of one character, a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) tasked with interpreting the language of aliens who land on Earth. The result is that we are as taken by the experience as she is.
Dr. Louise Banks leads a solitary, insular life as a teacher of linguistics at a local university. She is baffled one day when only a half dozen pupils show up for class. Finally, one of the students shakily asks Dr. Banks to turn on the overhead TV. What we see on the screen is panic in the streets, confused newscasters, military planes, and glimpses of…something else. After confirming with several sources that an extraterrestrial event may be happening, Dr. Banks is asked by the military to assist in making contact with the aliens.
The film runs at least 20 minutes before an entire alien spacecraft is shown, again from Dr. Bank’s point of view as she looks out from a military helicopter. We initially see an arial panorama of rolling green hills, low lying clouds….and suddenly, a huge lozenge-shaped object floating just yards above the countryside. It is a spectacular reveal.
Much of the film’s impact is dependent on actress Amy Adams, because we experience the story through her eyes. She does not disappoint. Adam’s open, ingenuous affect, which worked so well for her in Disney Studios’ Enchanted, also works here. She registers confusion, claustrophobia, terror, and awe so clearly that we can’t help but be pulled into her emotional state at all points in the film.
I can’t write much more about the storyline without ruining the movie for you. Let’s just say that an age-old science fiction concept is delivered effectively through expert plot development. In addition, the surreal nature of the main character’s experience is well supported by Johann Johannsson’s eerie, electronic film score.
Like other fans of science fiction, I really enjoy scifi tales that revel in detailed descriptions of technology (Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama comes to mind). However, Arrival’s storyline is well served by Villeneuve’s adherence to the rule, “Less is more.” How does the spaceship suspend itself in air? Why do the aliens look the way they do? We don’t get the answers to these questions….and that’s okay. What is germane to this tale is how humans might really react to something they could never have imagined in the first place. With Arrival, we get a virtual experience concerning what that might be like.
Pluses: Amy Adam’s performance, fascinating central concept, beautiful cinematography, effective musical score, sound editing which really brings the immediacy of the main character’s experience.
Minus: A major idea in the film was a bit of a stretch for me regarding believability. Nevertheless, I decided to go with it.
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Jadyn Malone.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language)
Length: 116 minutes
“History of science fiction films” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 January 2017. Web. 6 February 2017.