Denis Villenueve (2016)
Here’s a film that critics are falling over themselves to praise. I even saw one claim that it is the best picture of the year so far. Some 93 percent of critics have given it a positive rating, according to Rotten Tomatoes.com. Interestingly, on that same site, regular audience members attending the movie are ten points lower in their opinion of the film. What this kind of a difference suggests is that the critics, with their hifallutin criteria, are far more impressed with the movie than moviegoers, who are looking for a film that entertains them.
I say this because I was myself not particularly entertained by this movie. Sure, it is a cerebral film. One might even say it is a ponderous film. But it has its roots in prior movies beginning with 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, and moves through Close Encounters of the Third Kind and perhaps most closely, Contact. There are times when it threatens to lurch into the territory of The War of the Worlds or Independence Day. But here’s a clue: every one of those films I’ve just mentioned is more entertaining and exciting than this one, in which, I must admit, I fell asleep.
Oh, there is no question that Arrival is more thoughtful than any of these, that it moves toward a denouement that is startling yet prepared for by the intricate and subtle plot of the film. There is no doubt that this is all played out brilliantly in the Nebula-award winning short story on which the film is based—“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. A short story can explore the difficult themes of this narrative carefully in a relatively short space, where the two-hour film Denis Villenueve (Sicario) has made out of it is filled with a whole lot of what, if you were on the radio, you’d call “dead air.” Every single thing that happens in this film takes forever to happen. Everybody speaks quietly and slowly, and every note of music is drawn out to inordinate lengths. I know I complain a lot about the opposite kind of film, where everything is running, chasing, and explosives, but I really think a happy medium might be possible.
Here’s the gist of the story: The film begins with the “arrival” of a newborn baby into the world, and her young mother, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), begins telling the story as if she is narrating it all to Hannah, her daughter—her dead daughter, as it turns out, as in a few minutes we go through the entire life of the doomed daughter, who dies apparently in her late teens of an unspecified illness. Flash forward and Dr. Louise Banks is getting on with her life: one of the world’s most dozen of strange, monolithic forms have appeared across the world. The monoliths, of course, recall those strange shapes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—except that these happen to be 1500 feet tall.
As it becomes clear that these fortresses are “manned” by alien beings making first contact with planet earth, Dr. Banks is visited by a Colonel Wether (the always-welcome Forest Wittaker), who wants her to attempt to translate the strange sounds coming from the alien beings inside the spacecraft. She tells him that she cannot translate these fragments from a recording, that she must meet these beings face-to-face. After some initial foot-dragging, the colonel agrees, and Banks is off to Montana to the National Guard troop observing the monolith that has appeared over the U.S. Aboard her transport, she meets a world-class physicist, Ian Donelly (played by a bespectacled Jeremy Renner), also recruited by the military to try to make sense of the aliens.
Banks and Donelly, with several soldiers, enter the alien craft through a square tunnel at its base, which the aliens have designed to reverse gravity so that the humans can walk up the walls. A whole lot of the film’s time is spent on this, and on their initial confrontation with the aliens whom they call “heptapods” because of their seven limbs, and dub, for no apparent reason, Abbott and Costello. As the humans attempt to interact with the aliens on their interplanetary vessel (from behind a with a protective glass wall), they face enormous difficulties. Here is where the film truly explores problems that most films about aliens skip over: For one thing, whether it’s Spielberg or Star Trek, extraterrestrials typically all seem to be built on essentially the same overall plan as human beings: they walk on two legs, have two arms, they have eyes, ears, nose and mouth, from which they make sounds that form a language. But there is no reason to assume that life in another solar system or another galaxy would necessarily follow the same blueprint as earthlings. Could there not be other ways of interact with the world that did not involve sight, sound, or smell? Could there not be other means of communicating that did not involve the sounds we think of as language?
The aliens of Arrival resemble giant octopi, but with seven legs, and seven “fingers” on each of their seven “hands.” And their language poses a very difficult problem for Banks, as she struggles with how to crack the linguistic code of the alien syntax. She finally determines that through writing, symbolic representation of language, she can make some headway. However, the aliens’ symbolic language, which looks like Rorschach inkblots on circles, is still nearly impossible to crack, and misinterpretations nearly lead to disaster, particularly since Colonel Weber and an unsavory CIA agent named Helpern (Michael Stuhlberg) are very nervous about what could happen, and about what other countries are doing with their monoliths. But the ultimate understanding of the heptapod language will prove to be important for human beings and for the aliens as well.
One of the major themes of the film is an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf theory—a linguistic suggestion that one’s language actually determines the way one thinks. Since how you think determines how you see the world, language would then affect the structure of your mind and the way it perceives the universe. In this film, this relates particularly to time, and ultimately Arrival takes a page from the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse–Five, and Banks, you could say, like Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time.” But to say any more would be too much of a spoiler, so I’ll just leave that tantalizing bit out there.
This aspect of the film is fascinating, and the method of revealing it all in a series of flashbacks (and flash-forwards), many involving Adams’ lost daughter, which interact with the “present” of the film, is perfect for the concept. If only it weren’t so dang slow.
In the end, this story is fascinating, and Adams is, as always, effective and invites our sympathy. Renner is perfectly fine in his role, though he doesn’t have nearly as much to do as Adams and more or less plays second fiddle the entire film. Short stories seldom have more than one fully realized character, and, following its source, this film only has one in Adams. But overall the film is a snoozer. I can’t give it more than two Jaqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But check it out yourself if you want to—maybe you’ll feel more like the majority of critics. That, after all, is going to depend on your own perceptions, isn’t it?