Thursday, November 17, 2016
Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forrest Whittaker.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***
How will we communicate to those first arriving aliens? By music (as in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS)? A show of force (DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL)? Or mathematics (CONTACT)? ARRIVAL opts for a different kind of communication, a strategy that is based on emotions, heart, and memory.
Before I explain, let me first recall my early days in the Army back in the early 1970s. I remember during my first weeks in Basic Training taking a battery of language examinations. One in particular was a real challenge: It consisted of a booklet in an entirely made-up language. Page after page presented clues about vocabulary and syntax. As I leafed through the pages, I was able to glean clues and insights into this language until I could read, understand, and write it, although imperfectly. It was an intense experience. Well, watching the characters in ARRIVAL grapple with the alien language systems confronting them is like that experience—both for them and for we viewers. As such, ARRIVAL is one of the most absorbing and challenging experiences I’ve had in a movie in recent years.
The world wakes up one morning to find that twelve alien spaceships have arrived at various corners of the globe. These gigantic ovoid shapes silently hover above Russia, China, America, etc. Among the linguists and scientists dispatched to the ship hovering above Montana skies are Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. With little time for preparation and briefing, they find themselves inside the enormous structure, watching and listening in bewilderment as heptapod-like shapes materialize on the other side of a screen. They issue inky tendrils of smoke-like substance that form circular and star-like shapes.
There is little time to learn their language and find out what the aliens’ intentions are. The few words and concepts that are gleaned imply some kind of threat of weapons. As a result, the watch-stations around the world grow alarmed and bristle with weaponry, ready to annihilate the ships before they can launch whatever deadly design they have in whatever constitutes their “mind.” One by one, the watch-stations disconnect communications, leaving all twelve to labor in silence toward their common end.
Amy Adams alone is alarmed at this development. She is convinced that all twelve watch-stations form a grand design, or language that is some sort of warning of future events. She theorizes that each culture’s language system shapes how that culture thinks about time. It becomes apparent that she has an emotional link with these events. There are numerous flashbacks to scenes with mother and child, and we piece together a narrative that early in the baby’s development she had learned of an illness that would take her life in the future. Unlike her husband, who had abandoned the situation, she had faced this impending tragedy with a determination to cherish every moment that remained to the child. This sub-narrative gradually assumes dominance in the movie. We realize the film is a cosmic projection of her own grappling with loss, both of the child and the dissolution of the marriage. And her breakthrough in the aliens’ language not only saves the world from launching attacks on the ships but grants her a vision of a new future for her: She achieves an epiphany, courtesy of a musical quotation from Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings,” that she will unite with Jeremy Adams, her partner in the investigation, and build a new family.
In other words, like the film it most resembles, CONTACT, there is a climactic revelation of love and loss a promise of renewal, and the acceptance of a cosmic and personal design that unknowable but somehow consoling.
Kudos to the amazing musical and sound design. Image, music, and sound effects intermingle and blend in ways that are quite unusual. And while my attempts to reduce the film to a linear storyline make it sound precious and pretentious, I must confess it held me spellbound. I sifted through its fractured narrative much in the way that the characters themselves struggle to make sense of contact with the aliens—and yes, like I traversed page by page through that Army language test.