“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival isn’t exactly what I expected. A sort of updated Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Eric Heisserer’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life is a pretty straightforward observation about language. However, it’s a bit more academic than the average alien movie: it examines the theory of linguistic relativity, the idea that the structure of a language shapes the way its speakers relate to their environment (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity) (http://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/language-and-thought).
12 mysterious otherworldly spacecrafts land in what appear to be random places all over Earth—including remote Montana. It isn’t clear why they’re here, and people are freaking out. Not surprisingly, world leaders are perplexed—some are handling the so-called invasion better than others.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
The aliens, octopus-like creatures dubbed “heptapods,” hold visiting hours each day, allowing those who wish to engage them to do so—up close and personal inside their ship. A U.S. Army colonel (totally underused Forest Whitaker) seeks out linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) for a mission working with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of scientists to figure out how to communicate with the aliens and find out what they want. Banks learns that they have a language—circles and curlycues that they blow into the air. The more of their “words” she learns, the more Banks has visions of her deceased daughter (Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, and Julia Scarlett Dan).
Arrival does a nice job showing the limitations of language. A clever plot development involving a mutual misunderstanding of a word demonstrates how things can unravel on a dime. I like the depiction of the aliens in a totally plausible form. Villeneuve slowly builds suspense; he kept my interest almost all the way through. Sadly, Arrival pulls an emotionally manipulative sleight of hand toward the end. The wrap up is insipid; it knocked the film down a few pegs for me.
With Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma
Production: Lava Bear Films, 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment
Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), Sony Pictures Releasing (International)