Monday, November 21, 2016
ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
In ARRIVAL twelve alien spacecraft appear around the globe and hover above their locations. No one knows why the ships, named shells, are here or how to communicate with the aliens inside them. The United States military turns to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to interact with the squid-like visitors they call heptapods.
As a science fiction film, ARRIVAL is often stirring. Director Denis Villeneuve builds the suspense and conveys the wonder in the simple act of entering the ship. Fear and awe mix as they slowly make their way in the cavernous black corridor to a large room with a transparent wall behind which these mysterious visitors emerge out of the fog. When Ian brushes the side of this huge structure, Renner’s reaction evokes the giddiness of a baby learning about the world through touch. Adams is more sober because the most pressure really is on Louise, but the intense interest she shows in wanting to bridge the communication divide is no less a way of displaying her reverence for the opportunity entrusted to her.
The main dilemma in ARRIVAL is the inability to understand the other. A lot is riding on the humans and heptapods comprehending what is being said. First there’s the obstacle of spoken and nonverbal language. This fades as the issue of deciphering written symbols becomes more prominent. Even if these shapes can be interpreted according to their denotations, are the connotations being picked up too? Other teams at sites around the world are doing similar work but don’t always reach the same conclusions, presenting further barriers to a situation in which errors in decoding could be catastrophic.
While it uses the trappings of first contact with beings elsewhere in the universe, ARRIVAL is ultimately about empathy, particularly when points of view among two parties are, in this case, literally alien. Being able to see and feel from all sides is the best defense available. Adams makes Louise the rare hero who can save the day through listening and contemplation. The film itself takes the whole view idea to heart, as seeing it a second time brings out shades that would be easy to miss the first.