Like any arresting science-fiction tale, Denis Villenueve‘s Arrival (Paramount, 11.16) challenges you to stretch your cognitive processes. It’s a workout. It also has a great set-up — a visiting (not an invasion) of earth by 12 super-sized alien vehicles, in various locations around the globe. And a linguistic professor, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who has raised and lost a daughter to disease, tasked by the government (primarily represented by Forrest Whitaker in military fatigues) to somehow communicate with the alien pilots, called Heptapods, to learn where they’re from and what they want.
Sounds cool, no? An atmospherically haunting thing. Creepy images of massive, split-egg-shaped alien vessels hovering just above the earth. Intriguing, fascinating. A cerebral experience of discovery and synapse-expansion. And of course a hero’s journey for Dr. Banks, who’s just about the only person on the engagement team with an intelligent mindset about the visitors, which is that the only way to go is to communicate, exchange knowledge, share, learn.
Jeremy Renner‘s Ian, an open-minded scientist/mathematician, shares Banks’ attitude. And, down the road, his fluids.
Everyone else in Arrival is a lizard brainer — scared, defensive, concerned about threat, preparing a potential attack. And of course the story will be about Banks saving the world from this absurdly militant attitude.
The Heptapods are apparently looking to assess the nature and character of humans and determine if they deserve to survive with the benefit of their long-game altruism or whether it’s better to…what, ignore or even exterminate and thereby save the universe a lot of grief? Something like that.
So Arrival is more or less the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. The basic message is that aggression is for morons. The Heptapods are Michael Rennie‘s Klaatu. Dr. Banks is a combination of Sam Jaffe‘s Professor Barnhardt (a stand-in for Albert Einstein) and Patricia Neal‘s Helen Benson, both of whom come to agree with the message that Klaatu has come to earth to deliver, which is that aggression and violence are unacceptable and that the earth will be destroyed if the militants don’t cool their jets.
Eric Heisserer‘s screenplay (based on Ted Chiang‘s short story titled “Story of Your Life”) is also about Banks embracing the Heptapod’s non-linear attitudes about time, which means on some level that…I don’t know what the fuck it means. But it has something to do with Banks’ deceased daughter, whom he see in an endless stream of memory excerpts. And whether that tragedy of disease and early death resides in the past or future or whatever. It’s kind of like what the Trafalmadorians taught Billy Pilgrim about time in Slaughterhouse Five — that each and every incident has always existed, that there is no past or future, etc.
But Arrival lost me because it unfolds in the manner of some science fiction tales, starting off with a highly intriguing premise but then kind of levitating and leaving the planet around the midway or two-thirds point, flaking and spacing and dispersing into fragments of time and memory and inconclusive what-the-fucky. After the first 45 minutes or so Arrival starts to feel slow and repetitive and, yes, boring. I personally found it increasingly irksome.
Why would the super-intelligent, highly evolved Heptapods visit earth without a translation scheme or technology that would make their thoughts clearly understood to humans? Why even make the trip if the relationship between Heptapods and earthlings is going to stall immediately due to an utter inability of government and military leaders to discern what the Heptapods are up to? Think about it. It’s completely stupid, and yet this is the basic situation.
The highly complex and particular Heptapod language is expressed with an infinite number of circular smokey (or ink-in-water) semagrams. No one except Banks/Adams can make heads or tails of them, and even she is perplexed for a long stretch. Speaking for myself, sitting in the rear of Telluride’s Galaxy theatre, I got very, very sick of looking at these semagrams take shape over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
And why are the Heptaods presented as giant-squid like figures with tough, dark gray elephant skin and large expanding starfish hands? This feels like a bone tossed to the popcorn munchers who want to feel scared or intimidated by alien life forms. But think about it. This is a species with an intelligence ratio to humans equal to the ratio of humans to worms or ants, and they’re going to resemble the tenacled Martian vehicles in Steven Spielberg‘s The War of the Worlds except with elephant skin and starfish hands? Kind of a bonehead design call, no? Wouldn’t they more likely be ethereal beings, shed of cumbersome physicality and closer to the realm of pure intellect? Or something along those lines?
And I hate, hate, hate Bradford Young‘s cinematography, which doesn’t always deliver the same muddy, underlighted values — a vaguely greenish tint, like you’re looking at everything through a scrim — but does often enough. His images convey a feeling of slight suffocation, like my eyes are dying or the image is doing a fade to black. A N.Y. Times profile noted that Young “favors raw light and has a penchant for shooting into it.” His images have been bothering me for years — Middle of Nowhere, Selma, A Most Violent Year, Pawn Sacrifice. If a film has been shot by Young, brace yourself — you’re in for murky ride.
Here’s an Arrival story I wrote a couple of weeks ago, called “Klaatu Would Understand.”