ARRIVAL (2016)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: When 12 alien spacecraft descend to Earth at seemingly random points around the globe, a linguistics expert (Adams) is recruited to interpret the aliens’ speech in order to find out why they are here, among other things.

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” – Louise Banks (Amy Adams), Arrival

That seemingly simple question lies at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi brainteaser, Arrival.  Surrounding it is a film of uncommon grace, beauty, and intellectual stimulation that deserves comparison to Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris.  When I first saw it in 2016, I’ll admit to some slight confusion at the end, but after many repeat viewings, I believe I understand it fully enough to call it a masterpiece.

After a prologue where we witness a montage of her losing a daughter to an unnamed but ravaging disease, we see Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) teaching linguistics at a university.  Classes are interrupted when news breaks of not one, but TWELVE alien spacecraft suddenly appearing at random points around the globe.  Eventually, the military contacts her and reveals that contact has been made between us and the aliens, but to say we can’t comprehend their language is an understatement.  She and a top-notch mathematician, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are flown to the US sites in Montana and are given an impossible task: decipher the alien language and ask them why they’re here.

The design of the aliens and their ship are visual masterstrokes.  The ship, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, aka “The Bean”, in downtown Chicago.  (Google it if you’re unfamiliar with it.)  But imagine it standing vertical on end, matte gray-black instead of chrome, and hundreds of feet tall.  Ominous and delicate at the same time.  The aliens themselves…well, I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will say they are called “heptapods” by the scientists.  Seven legs.  Cool.

The US researchers and military are connected via satellite to every other landing site around the globe, each attempting to make a communications breakthrough, but it’s Dr. Banks who realizes the aliens may have a form of written communication.  Using a whiteboard and simple words at first, she can have very limited conversations with the heptapods.  But when Banks is finally able to ask the all-important question, “Why are you here”, the answer she gets throws the military and government representatives into a tizzy and they cut off all communications to the other landing sites.

Meanwhile, Dr. Banks has periodically been having extremely vivid visions or memories of her daughter at random moments.  At one point, she is struggling to remember the scientific term for a “win-win” situation, and the memory comes back to her in a flash from a previous conversation with her daughter.  Although it is odd that we hear the term first in the present, and then she remembers it in the past…but enough about that.

Arrival may strike some as slow and plodding.  I suppose they’re right, in a sense.  It lacks any of the deliberately manipulative editing of, say, a Spielberg or a Scorsese film, where the cuts are specifically designed to grab the audience member by the collar and propel them to the film’s high and low points.  By contrast, Arrival takes its time.  It stands back and presents us with all the information we need to really, actively watch the film and work those brain cells.

[The score of Arrival deserves special mention.  In a film whose story arc involves linguistics and translations, it’s appropriate that, at key moments, the score includes multiple human voices harmonizing in ethereal chords or pulsing in a rhythm that sounds utterly alien, not just foreign.  A brilliant touch.]

What gives Arrival that extra push is that question Dr. Banks asks at one point in the film.  “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”  This question, when it comes, has poignant undertones that were not even hinted at in previous scenes.  And I find it to be incredibly moving, every time.  In fact, I wonder if I’m not really the prime target audience for this movie.  I wonder if it’s most effective for people who have lost loved ones to disease or accidents – untimely, unbearable deaths.  For those people, I cannot even begin to imagine how they would answer, or if they agree with Dr. Banks’s answer to her own question.

For myself, I have been blessed in this life, knock wood.  I have lost family members, but mostly to old age, although two uncles were taken by cancer in their fifties and sixties.  But I found myself thinking about this question today more than any other time, for some reason.  If I could magically go back in time, while retaining all my current knowledge, would I change things?

It’s deceptively easy to say “yes”, especially when it concerns the big things.  Sure, I would probably not stay as silent as I did when I learned a dear friend was being molested in high school and college.  No, I would probably not have gotten romantically involved that one time with the absolute wrong person.  No, I would most certainly not have skipped work that one day to see Spider-Man 3.  I would have remembered my driver’s license that one time I was pulled over.  I would have rearranged my schedule to go with my father and sister to Spain that one time.  And on and on.

But…if I hadn’t done some of those things…I may not be where I am now.  In a wonderful relationship with my best friend.  Working at a job that has its challenges but is rewarding and accommodating enough for me to do theater.  Surrounded by a support structure of friends that is second to none.  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Just kidding.

Your answer may differ from mine, or from Dr. Banks’s answer in the film.  That’s fine.  We all have our own reasons for our own answers to that question.  What’s wonderful about Arrival is its ability to couch that existential question in a top-notch sci-fi drama that, in its own unflashy way, is every bit as exciting and though-provoking as ten Independence Days.  It looks great, sounds great, acted great…what more could I ask for?

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