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Film Review

New film: Arrival

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

First contact stories tend to fall into one of two broad categories. Either the mysterious aliens want to farm us, pillage our planet, or perhaps demolish the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Or, less often, they see potential in us and want to magnanimously share their technology and great bounty and coincidentally stop us from slaughtering each other.

Clearly, the extreme difference between these scenarios is why so many such stories center around the “Why are they here?” question.

“Arrival” focuses on the fundamental difficulty in asking that. It’s not just about language translation but about the concept and context of language itself. What, for example, if you’re trying to ask a question of somebody who doesn’t understand the concept of questions?

Given this premise, it’s not surprising that the lead character, played by Amy Adams, is a linguist. She’s tasked with communicating with the aliens, assessing their intent, and informing the powers that be. Those powers are represented by the military commander (Forest Whitaker) who apparently graduated from the James T. Kirk “You can have half as much time as you just told me you need” school of thought. Jeremy Renner rounds out the leading cast as the skeptical scientist/mathematician who doubts the importance of language.

As is often the case, the government/military take the position that no answer is a bad answer and we’re better off with dead aliens than with aliens who make friends with our enemies. This is of course complicated by the fact that the aliens landed in 12 different places around the world and the other major governments are playing exactly the same game.

All of which may make “Arrival” sound very generic or derivative. But while many of the elements are familiar, the approach here is more intellectual than confrontational. And this may be the film’s weakness in the marketplace as it has very little in the way of explosions or high tech weaponry – and almost no witty comebacks. It’s a quiet, thoughtful science fiction story caught between the pizzazz of “Doctor Strange” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

It’s also a story that slowly unveils itself, proving to be more complex than it first appears – but in a way that’s likely to have you driving home, pondering whether the entire thing is a vast, gaping plot hole or if it all makes perfect sense after all. Adam’s character makes a major discovery that leaves you wondering why the aliens didn’t show up with an alien-English dictionary – but she also makes a choice that perhaps explains why they didn’t.

However, it’s the answer to the basic “Why?” question that’s the most interesting part of all – and demonstrates that for all the differences her character allows for, the aliens are really remarkably human, regardless of how many legs they have and how they communicate.

“Arrival” ends up being more interesting than thrilling, with strong performances, and some good starting points for after-movie conversation.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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