Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.16
Michael Crichton’a The Andromeda Strain pretty much invented the modern sci-fi techno thriller, and it was made into a crackling 1971 thriller by director Robert Wise.
The tone was pure procedural, with a gaggle of scientists researching and conferencing in labs, to determine why a highly lethal microorganism killed everybody in a small Arizona town, except for a geriatric Sterno addict and a relentlessly cranky baby.
Few films since then have successfully duplicated that formula, because it’s a difficult tightrope walk: too many talking heads, and the result is boring; too much contrivance and coincidence, and audiences roll their eyes in contemptuous disbelief.
Director Denis Villeneuve gets the balance just right with Arrival, easily one of the most intelligent “first contact” movies Hollywood ever has delivered. Scripter Eric Heisserer embraced the challenging assignment of adapting sci-fi author Ted Chiang’s 2000 Nebula Award-winning novella, and the result is impressively faithful: fascinating, clever and suspenseful, with an out-there finale certain to fuel debates as impassioned as those that greeted the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The story also boasts one of the most truly unusual alien cultures ever conceived, the depiction of which is likely to forever change most viewers’ perception and understanding of language.
Finally, the film is an uncomfortably timely reminder of the dangerous levels of nationalism and xenophobia currently running amok throughout this country and the globe, and the consequences of failing to recognize that — at the end of the day — we’re a single species sharing this planet, and that it behooves us to behave accordingly.
To cases, then:
Northeastern university professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an internationally respected linguist, is surprised one day to discover that her huge, entry-level language class is almost empty. The reason becomes clear as breaking news reports interrupt all radio and television broadcasts: A disturbingly large something has landed in a deserted Montana meadow.
Actually, “landed” is the wrong word; the semi-cylindrical object hovers about 20 feet off the ground.
The university is evacuated; Banks heads to her car as Air Force jets scramble overhead. She returns to a beautiful but empty home, with a gorgeous lakeside view that she shares with nobody. She returns to her office the following day — likely because routine is the only constant in her life — and finds the campus utterly deserted. Until, that is, her office is invaded by a group of soldiers led by military intelligence officer Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker).
After a bit of procedural posturing — the arch humor is subtle, but perceptible — Banks winds up sharing a helicopter ride with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Their destination: the aforementioned Montana field, where U.S. forces have set up a provisional base. Because, well, the alien craft’s inhabitants are attempting to communicate.
In a manner so unfamiliar that it seems no more than gibberish.
But bridging that conversational gap is critical, because this Montana whatzit is only one of 12 identical “visitors” scattered randomly throughout the globe. Some are in “friendly” regions such as Australia; others — notably Russia, China and Pakistan — not so much. The key questions must be addressed: Why are they here? What is their purpose?
And the answers must come fairly quickly, before one of the more belligerent international “hosts” does something provocatively stupid, perhaps initiating a chain-reaction attack by the visitors.
Villeneuve cannily withholds significant details, playing on viewer curiosity and expectation; even the initial appearance of the Montana-based spacecraft is delayed for dramatic impact. But the director doesn’t cheat us; we eventually follow Banks and Donnelly into the ship — a gravity-defying experience, for them and us — and witness their introduction to beings eventually dubbed Heptapods.
But how, precisely, to bridge the language barrier? Particularly when it becomes clear that “language” is an entirely different concept to the Heptapods?
Revealing more would be irresponsible, because much of this film’s allure comes from the manner in which Villeneuve and Heisserer tease, suggest and illuminate. It’s an enlightening reminder that the pleasing-to-the-eye extraterrestrials that populate the Star Trek and Star Wars universes are a bipedal conceit; truly alien visitors are much more likely to be psychologically disconcerting, even shocking, in their utter weirdness.
Villeneuve and Heisserer present precisely that atmosphere of unsettling uncertainty; the tone, at times, is quasi-scary. The very environment feels as unstable as the national and international tension that magnifies, as days turn into weeks. Fear-stoked riots and looting become the norm across the United States. Hectoring, hawkish media pundits advocate a shoot-first response.
All of which is much more frightening than what Banks and Donnelly confront, because we know — from recent events — that such hate-filled bile likely would reflect the national mood.
The story’s emotional core belongs to Banks, for reasons that I’ll not specify, and Adams rises to this challenge. She radiates quiet pain, an almost crippling degree of misery frequently revealed in her gaze; her wan smiles are to be treasured. (We think we know the source of this grief, but assumptions can be misleading.) At the same time, Adams can project the giddy, almost childlike excitement of a pathologically focused academic, each time Banks makes an intuitive breakthrough.
Renner’s Donnelly is quite a contrast: a cheerful, self-assured theoretician so wrapped up in science and math, that Banks’ theories and deployment of language are just as eye-opening and instructive to him, as they are to Weber. She’s forced, at times, to treat both men like grade-schoolers: patiently explaining linguistic concepts to justify her approach with the Heptapods, cautioning how even a single word — such as tool — could prove damaging during translation.
Whitaker is ramrod-stiff as Weber, but the man isn’t a military drone; he’s respectful, even apologetic, despite trying to serve two masters. On the one hand, he comes to value the input from his two civilian academics; on the other, Weber obviously struggles to retain control of the operation, as time passes, and his unseen D.C. superiors chafe over the absence of telling results.
CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), on the other hand, is precisely the sort of impatient hawk who never should be placed in charge. Stuhlbarg makes the man condescending, challenging and contemptuous; he’d never advocate bringing in the likes of Banks and Donnelly. Halpern personifies institutionalized arrogance.
Visual effects supervisor Louis Morin and production designer Patrice Vermette do a sensational job, not merely with the Heptapods, but also the eerie ambiance of their massive, gravity- and atmosphere-controlled vessel. Martine Bertrand also deserves a shout-out for a most unusual contribution: the development of the aliens’ wildly strange written language.
On the other hand, Villeneuve indulges in some irritating stylistic affectations. He favors unfocused establishing shots, cinematographer Bradford Young leaving a tableau fuzzy until focusing on one thing or person, and then gradually bringing clarity to the entire scene. That might make sense within the Heptapod ships, but it’s damn annoying within the various human environments.
Villeneuve also makes unusual use of composer Johann Johannsson, the dramatic score often clashing with the clicks, chrrs and whirrs that sound designer Dave Whitehead created for the Heptapod “language.” At times, it’s impossible to know whether we — and the story’s human characters — are hearing the Heptapods, or mood-enhancing underscore.
Finally, Villeneuve needlessly batters our emotions during the climactic epilogue, which runs perhaps 30 telling seconds too long.
These tics aren’t ruinous, but they can be distracting. Which is a shame, because — for the most part — Villeneuve holds us in thrall. Arrival is a rarity these days: a thoughtful, cautionary sci-fi drama that relies on intellect and insight, rather than explosions and zap-gun pyrotechnics. And it serves as a warning, much the way 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still did, so many decades ago.
A pity, really, that we don’t seem to have advanced all that much, in the meanwhile.