“Arrival” Pairs Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Race to Communicate with Arriving Aliens

Genre:  Sci-fi drama
116 minutes
Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Stars:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker
Review: Connie Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com)

In this sci-fi arrival of intelligent life from outer space movie Amy Adams plays a linguist named Louise Banks who is drafted by the military to determine how to communicate with aliens who land in 12 locations around the globe. Forest Whittaker (in a small role) is the reasonable military man sent to retrieve Louise. The reason for the appearance of the gigantic (1500 feet tall) egg-like ships is a mystery to all. Figuring out how to communicate with them would certainly help solve the question, “What do they want? Why are they here?” We are reminded, “Language is the foundation of civilization,” but these beings communicate with symbols that allow them to convey a complex sentence in 2 seconds and employ non-linear orthography (no “l” to “r”).

THE GOOD

Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures
Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist also assigned to the case. You just know that, at some point, there will be a romance between the two, but let’s not go there just yet. Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane and examine other movies about extra-terrestrial visits. The most noteworthy, of course, would be “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” which more than holds its own against this film. “Close Encounters” (1977) is, after all, the Gold Standard. I also thought back to Jodie Foster’s “Contact” (1997) and even such oddities as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (David Bowie in 1979) and the primitive “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951, remade in 2008). All of these films have laid the groundwork for this movie, so nothing wrong with examining “Arrival’s” predecessors, even if it’s just a kids’ movie about an alien who wants to phone home. (“E.T”, 1982.).

The sounds the aliens make are very reminiscent of “Close Encounters” and were like the sounds that whales make, coupled with moans, breathing noises (from Adams and Renner within their orange haz-mat suits), whooshing sounds and loud brass instruments. All of that sort of thing we’ve seen (or heard) before. (“Close Encounters”)

The alien ship itself resembles the Hindenburg, a black oval standing on end. It’s been described in other terms, but suffice it to say that, yes, it is creepy and effective as an alien spacecraft and the aliens are equally weird-looking.

What do they look like, you say? Well, first of all, they are heptapods, which means that they have 7 legs like a squid or an octopus. I jotted down the word “mollusks” and “starfish” at various points. There is so much dry ice fog in every shot that I almost thought that the aliens were part of a rock band. ( I haven’t seen that much dry ice white fog since it totally blocked out Isaac Hayes playing the “Shaft” theme from that 2000 movie at the Academy Awards).

THE BAD

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures
Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Early on, we learn that Amy Adams had a daughter she lost to an incurable disease. They don’t dwell on this plot point, but there are frequent flashbacks to Amy’s relationship with her daughter. I remember finding it odd that the father’s face was never shown, but I think I’ve figured that out and won’t bore you with the explanation, (which might prove to be a spoiler—if it’s the “right” interpretation). I also immediately thought of Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” who had also just lost a child before going into space as an astronaut. It seems to be becoming a pre-requisite for women undertaking dangerous missions in space that they be emotionally fragile after the death of a child.

I will say that this film seems like it should give way to a film that focuses exclusively on Amy Adams’ character as she seems to have the ability to “see” the future.  It was surprising, to me that so little interest was shown in her unique abilities at the conclusion of the film. She asks a poignant question of Jeremy Renner near film’s end, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Prior to that, she has said, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.”

Some other plot points that might help you figure out one popular interpretation of the plot, (without me actually giving it away), are these lines:  “Memory is a strange thing.  It doesn’t work like I thought it did.  We are so bound by time, by its order.  I remember moments in the middle…There are days that define your story beyond your understanding.”

 I’ve described both the alien spaceship and the aliens themselves and anyone who has seen a sci fi movie since the fifties will know that there is always some government stooge who wants to blast the aliens immediately. In this movie that role is played by Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpen. The experts can’t figure out why the 12 ships have landed in the precise locations (in the U.S., it’s Montana). At one point, they throw out the theory that all of the countries where the 12 alien ships have landed were countries where Sheena Easton had a hit in the eighties. (Pretty sure  that was a joke, Son.)

One other important plot point that viewers planning on attending this movie should know is that the aliens have a very fluid concept of time.(It’s something the aliens have in common with the writers of “Arrival.”) At one point the idea is thrown out that, if you learn a foreign language, you might think in a different way due to being immersed in the language…a sort of “brain training.”  The line “You can see time the way they do” is inserted at one point, and it does seem that Louise has some major-league “gifts” that we normal folk don’t have, when it comes to seeing what the future might hold.

The movie is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. I have a feeling that some of the movie-going public are going to go away very confused. For true science fiction lovers, interpreting the film will be a task along the lines of discussions of “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) or “2001: A Space Odyssey.”(1968)

If you’re among that number, Enjoy!

 

About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books (31 at last count) in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com.