Review: Arrival

arrival

As loyal followers of this site are probably well aware, I’m not a fan of science fiction in general or aliens in particular. However, a big-budget holiday picture starring Amy Adams (and aliens) might make me change my mind. To be honest, I went in to the film blind. I only knew that several giant space pods had landed and Amy Adams was somehow involved in figuring out why they are here. I know I say this a lot, but if a film has a fantasy setting, it needs to establish some rules right up front, and then it needs to consistently follow those rules to the end. If this is done correctly, a screenwriter can take any naysayer or cynic and turn him into a satiated viewer.

The film starts out with some personal back-story about Adams character, Louise, and we soon learn that she is actually some kind of language teacher/expert. When a dozen spaceships land in random places around the globe (one of which here in the States), she is approached by a U.S. military colonel, played by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, to come help figure out what these aliens are trying to say. She will be assisted by a first-class science nerd named Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, whose job isn’t all that clear, but together they are the best chance we have at answers.

Upon arrival at the site, Louise and Ian are educated that the aliens let humans board the ship every 18 hours to communicate. The aliens seemingly accept the humans, or are at least open to some kind of face-to-face interaction. It’s actually a pretty bizarre scenario, but since we the viewer know just as much about the aliens as the main characters in the film, it works. The aliens do communicate through a symbol, and this is where the film really gets interesting.

I’ve been a fan of language for most of my life. The English language is one of the toughest in the world to learn, because of all the odd spellings, rules, and tenses that can impact a sentence’s meaning. Adams’ character Louise is an expert at all of the things I love. In one particularly wonderful scene, Whitaker’s character asks her to find out the aliens’ purpose on Earth. She then breaks down the individual parts of that specific sentence to explain why that is not as easy as it sounds. The would-be English teacher inside of me erupted with joy, as the middle hour of the film becomes dedicated to understanding the symbols the aliens present and the education of language learning to the aliens (and by proxy, to the audience). I can’t get too specific about the aliens language without venturing into spoiler territory, but it’s unique, and I applaud screenwriter Eric Heisserer for brilliantly adapting Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life.”

Adams could be in consideration for Actress in a Leading Role, although she also has Nocturnal Animals out now, which could split her vote. The film is one of ten finalists for a VFX nomination, and I expect it to get the nom. I also think Heisserer’s script could make the list of adapted screenplays. Be on the lookout for sound award nominations too.

Ultimately, the film does take a bit of an odd turn, but there’s an interesting twist that will leave you pondering everything you just watched for the last two hours as you drive home from the cinema. Those types of experiences are what make good movies for me. If you set up the rules, tell me an interesting story, and give me something to think about for a couple days, I will be happy. As a stalwart of that naysayer/cynic fraternity, I was pleasantly surprised that I loved the film.

-Steve
12.21.2016

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