Dir. Denis Villeneuve. U.S. 2016

Talking Pictures alias







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Denis Villeneuve’s (“Sicario”) Arrival is a story about the power of communication, the illusory nature of time, and the importance of words and language in creating our conception of the world. Written by Eric Heisserer from the short story, “Story of Your Life,” by author Ted Chiang, it is a thinking person’s science fiction film that does more than offer bad guys threatening good guys. While its aliens are no great shakes in the looks department, here they have something akin to brains and are actually trying to teach us something which, given recent historical events, might be problematic.

The story is one we have become familiar with in varying scenarios over the years. Space ships (in this case, 12) from another planet land in widely diverse areas on Earth and proceed to cause the world’s great movers and shakers to shake a bit more than usual. Of course, the most trigger happy ones are not us but Russia and China (who else?). The key player in the scenario is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Professor of Linguistics. After word spreads around campus of the startling landings, Louise, who is mourning the death of her teenage daughter Hannah from cancer, is called upon by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who asks her to use her language skills to communicate with the aliens in order to discover the reason for their visit.

Though the focus is on setting up contact, the film flashes backwards and forwards in time as we see her daughter Hannah as a baby being tucked into bed and her final days in the hospital. Reluctantly, Dr. Banks agrees to go to Montana where one of the giant oblong ships is hovering just off the ground. Here she is assisted by physicist Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremie Renner) who is more interested in the scientific implications of the visit rather than what it portends for the human race. Only allowed on the space ship during strictly enforced visiting hours, Louise and her team find themselves floating through a large tunnel, finally reaching what looks like a big movie screen in which they can see and attempt to communicate with the aliens.

The visitors are seven-legged entities that are designated “heptapods” and look like they just escaped from a Walt Disney promo for a future Jurassic park movie. In a rare attempt at humor, Ian labels two of them Abbott and Costello. It is not clear who’s on first but it is obvious that Bud and Lou are not fluent in English and can only communicate in a non-verbal, symbolic language drawn in pictographs. The scenes that setup the first encounter are the most affecting and the message is clear that communication between groups that lack a common frame of reference takes patience and determination.

The heptapods’ drawings allow Louise to understand that their purpose has to do with us helping them or them helping us, whoever lasts for another three thousand years, a dubious proposition as far as Earth is concerned. Standing out as a good candidate for misinterpretation, the words “offer weapons” suggest something sinister to CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg). Of course, this throws the world into a panic and the film becomes bogged down in military maneuvers, ultimatums, and time bombs. Ultimately, however, the film focuses on what unites us rather than what divides us and Louise and Ian’s personal story and their changing perspective of time adds a broader dimension.

Arrival contains an Oscar-caliber performance by Amy Adams whose quest for knowledge and touching personal story allows us to identify with her search for answers. While the film is unafraid to tackle big questions and contains intriguing notions about the nature of time and how it can affect our personal relationships, its atmosphere is smothered in a sort of cloudy gloom that lacks any sense of the mystery and wonder present in such earlier sci-fi films such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What does stand out, however, is the realization that, as Werner Erhard expressed it, “Every word brings with it its meaning, but meanings are not inherently there. Language gives the world its meaning. From this stand, things shift—our speaking impacts the world to match our words."

If we have any desire to create a future that nurtures us, as we enter a period of transformation, we have to create a new conversation that questions our way of being in the world, an authentic new story that is based on an abiding sense of community, an intimate connection with nature, and an unconditional love in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, “for the stars in the sky and, on earth, the brave little lights of men.”


Howard Schumann

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