|Amy Adams in Arrival|
“Amy Adams’ Excellent Adventure”
A Review of Arrival by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels
Most films in sci-fi/fantasy genre currently, even if of high quality, are overblown action films with huge budgets, fast paced narratives, and witty one-liners. Arrival is a sigh of relief and a throwback to slower, more cerebral pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact – sharing more than a few similarities with the latter. These films all began with the thrill of first contact, only to become thoughtful mediations on the greater questions of life. In Arrival, these questions include the purpose of language, the nature of time, the importance of choice, and the inherent goodness of life. It’s pretty impressive, though not nearly as cool as imagining how these aliens argue about politics.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a lonely yet successful linguist professor haunted by memories of the pre-mature death of her daughter. Without warning, twelve enormous, cone shaped spacecraft land throughout the world, and she is asked by the military to assist in contacting the aliens inside the one that landed in Montana. The aliens – called heptopods after their seven tentacles – are able to produce ink based symbols on a glass pane that are soon interpreted as sentences. It takes quite a while to make any sense out of their language, and the leaders of the world are getting anxious. Their fears are confirmed when they respond “offer weapon” to a question about their purpose. Soon, there is a communication blackout between world leaders and China seems posed to destroy the craft in their country. Yet, Louise is convinced that their message is misunderstood and desperate tries to find their true meaning before it is too late.
Arrival is at its best when it focuses on the puzzle of unlocking the Heptopilian language. The pacing is slow but never boring, with each piece building on the next. It turns out that the language is not based on sounds but concepts, like pictograpms. Each sentence is a circle with small splotches and deviations that represent ideas. While this progression is more than enough to carry the film it is hampered by a distracting and unnecessary sub-plot involving a team of soldiers. Fed by right-wing pundits who encourage a “show of force,” they attempt to blow up the ship. It is completely out of character with the rest of the film and does nothing to move along the plot. At least when this same narrative device was used in Contact, it worked within the story rather than apart. It almost as if the screenwriters had to add it to prove their Hollywood liberal credentials. The film never considers that it was the military who asked for Louise’s help in the first place and whose primary purpose is protection and order, not war.
When the big reveal about the secret purpose of the alien is discovered, it is unexpected but a bit contrived. I’ll this up to the viewer to experience, only to say it shares more than a little with another classic sci-fi flick from the 80s. What is more important than the reveal is the affect it has on Louise and her choices. It allows her to perceive her future actions more clearly and possible alter a devastating event.
Yet even if the future involves suffering, should it be altered? Here I will divulge one important piece of information: Louise’s memories of her now dead daughter are actually flashes of her future life. Despite knowing her daughter’s inevitable fate, she chooses to conceive and bring her into the world – knowledge that she also selfishly hides from her husband-to-be. It’s a strong affirmation of the pro-life message, of children, of human endeavor, and of the possibility of other worlds. Like the alien encounter it illustrates, Arrival is unsteady but ultimately rewarding.