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Arthur C Clarke famously said there are just two possibilities: that we are alone in the universe, or we aren’t, and both are equally terrifying.
The first terror is more challenging to put on Arrival movie, but director Denis Villeneuve brings the second to life with this wacky and audacious contact sci-fi – and makes it something other than terror. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has adapted the novella Story of Your Life by the SF author Ted Chiang; he brings to it a Shyamalan-esque lilt, and cleverly finesses the inevitable problem of how to end this kind of story: whether there is going to be any kind of departure.
Arrival movie skirts the edge of absurdity as anything like this must, but a forthright star performance from Amy Adams convinces you that something that could be silly is actually fascinating and deeply scary. This is a close encounter of the engrossing kind: smarter and more dreamily exalting than recent, disappointing movies such as Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
As is now expected with this kind of film, the protagonist is a flustered, bewildered civilian expert, brusquely pressed into service by the military, which has got the spacecraft surrounded in the short term. Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a world-renowned professor of comparative linguistics with pretty much nothing in her life rather than her work.
A bunch of army guys led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) show up on Louise’s doorstep, demanding she come with them to help translate the apparently linguistic sounds coming from the aliens who have just landed. Why, you may wonder, did they not come to Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex.
At any rate, Louise’s liaison is the flirtatious Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a military scientist who, in a stereotypical and fallacious manner, equates his hotness with science. Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise’s life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to come in touch with the aliens cause eerie, illuminating echoes in her consciousness.
If a lion could speak, said Wittgenstein, we would not understand him. Does the same go for aliens? Spielberg solved this issue elegantly in Close Encounters by making the form of communication a five-note musical phrase, ending questioningly on the dominant. Villeneuve’s solution is more literal. The aliens have a code that – a bit strangely – Louise finds herself more or less capable of figuring out. It is her human instinct, vulnerability and spontaneity that ultimately allow her to reach out to the visitors.
Villeneuve very cleverly creates the pre-contact ambient panic in society, when news of the aliens’ arrival bursts out. Dr. Banks walks into the faculty car park where someone backing out just bashes into someone else.
A low-level hit in the cinematic scheme of stuffs, but convincing in its suppressed panic and abandonment of politeness. Do these visitors come in peace or not? Arrival movie cites the result of indigenous Australians being visited by Captain Cook and the white Europeans in the 18th century. Cleverly, it does not provoke the more obvious problems of Africans or Native Americans.
The scenes that precede the revelation are where the flavor is: the pre-alien foreplay where the genre has yet to turn from conspiracy paranoia to full blown sci-fi. Villeneuve doesn’t disappoint with his scenes of eerie and skin-crawling weirdness: great sequences of the tense, bustling military bureaucracy in the secure zone adjacent to the spaceship, with everyone dressing in the big Michelin-man hazmat suits, actually not different from the one ET gets poignantly zipped up in. On her way in, Dr. Banks asks Col Weber who was the man she just saw being carted off in a medevac. “Not everyone can process this experience,” he responds, darkly: an indirect challenge to us, the cowering audience.
By breezily switching focus to political intrigue and betrayal within the human ranks, Villeneuve keeps a grip on his plot and brings about ballast for its departure into the worlds of the visionary and supernatural. He also prepares us for Arrival movie’s sense that language itself, freed from our normal sense of its linear form, might be more essential than anyone thought.
Arrival is a great, dangerous, showy film that jumps up on its high-concept highwire and disdains a net. And yes, there are uneasy moments of silliness when it wobbles a little. But this is a captivating piece of work, with a sublime performance from Amy Adams, all about the romance of other worlds, and this one.