Thursday, November 24, 2016

New Release! Arrival [Spoiler -free and Spoilers versions]

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Spoiler-Free Section

This is one of the most thought-provoking, sober, and creative science-fiction movies I've seen in quite some time.

Being the spoiler-free zone up here, I'll keep my summary of the plot as basic as possible. Earth is thrown into shock when a dozen dark, massive objects suddenly appear, hovering over various locations around the planet. Just as humans are going through their initial confused and frightened reactions to this, prominent linguist Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called upon by the U.S. government and military to try and communicate with one of the objects, which is hovering over an open area in Montana. As Banks and Donnelly try to penetrate the daunting linguistic barriers between them and truly alien lifeforms, other national powers around the world take different approaches, some more aggressive than others.

This movie truly does put the "science" in science-fiction. Perhaps it is due to my own interests (I'm an English as a Second Language instructor), but a story that makes such intelligent use of linguistics is immensely compelling. Through the character of Banks, we get to see just how essential and complex are the mechanisms behind vocabulary and syntax, and just how they facilitate understanding between people or any creatures capable of aural communication. There's a thrill in watching Banks have to get down to the fundamental architecture of language and use it to break through to some incredibly strange and rather intimidating creatures.

But lest you think that the movie is all cold science and dull grammar, the story has an immense amount of heart. Using a very personal part of Banks's life, we see an emerging change in perspective on the doctor's part. This change leads her to ask a wonderfully profound question which, in addition to tying together several of the film's elements, touches on some of the great existential questions that humanity has asked over time.

The structure and the filming of the movie are brilliant. Anyone who enjoys the narrative puzzle of non-linear storytelling will appreciate this film. And unlike many movies which use this device merely for style, Arrival weaves it together with one of the key plot elements in a way that creates a synergy unlike nearly any other movie I've seen.

This is not in any way an action movie. I say this because some of the imagery from the trailers or posters might lead you to think that the movie is a clone of Independence Day or some similar fast-paced, explosion-fest. Hardly. In fact, I expect some viewers to complain that the movie is too slow (the guy next to me in the theater fell asleep and was snoring twice). This is to be expected if one is hoping for video-game style energy and action. Instead, Arrival uses measured suspense and no small amount of mystery to build a sense of awe and fascination. This takes more confidence and skill on the part of director Denis Villeneuve than most film-makers would dare.

Although a very different movie in many ways, I was put in mind of another of my favorite science-fiction movies, The Fountain. Both use non-linear storytelling to combine a tale of extremely humanist, personal drama with highly cerebral concepts of science and philosophy. This one may just go down among my all-time favorite sci-fi movies.

Spoiler Zone Below. You Have Been Warned.

I admit that I'll need to see this movie at least one more time before I can fully process all of the details laid out, but there are a few things worth looking into after this initial viewing.

Dr. Banks's earliest attempts to communicate are, by
necessity, limited to the basics of human language. Simple
labels are only the start.
Firstly, I love the slow burn of revealing the aliens. While it doesn't wait forever, it's a good twenty minutes into the movie before you see them. And when you do, it's in a fog that only suggests their actual shape most of the time. It's a perfect use of the classic tactic of leaving enough to the viewers' imagination to create a sense of mystery and wonder. I also appreciate just how bizarre the heptapods look. The writers and visual artists didn't use any of the tropes of using humanoid figures or tired alien designs of the past.

I will quibble just a tad with the explanations of a few of the linguistic points in the movie, but that's mostly because I teach English as a Second Language for a living. There didn't seem to be any technical gaffes, thanks to some very solid research on the writer's part, but some of the nitty gritty probably could have been explained a bit better for the layperson. It also could have been presented in a slightly more cinematic manner here or there. Minor gripes, though.

If there is one thing which I have trouble with, it's alternating and shifting time lines. And this is not specific to Arrival - it's always a problem when used in stories. This movie does approach it in a unique, clever, and far more sober way than most, by using the circular perspective of time through language to allow speakers of such a language to perceive the future just as they perceive the past. That's not the issue. The issue is that future events affect the present, leading to different choices and outcomes. One example in the movie is how Dr. Banks learns how to contact a key person in the present only because, at a point in the future, that figure gives her his personal phone number. This leads to all sorts of "chicken or egg" questions that simply cannot be answered. Does the ability to perceive time as a whole give one the power to alter it? And if so, wouldn't the perceiver then be able to perceive an infinite number of possible time circles? And more and more questions like this arise. It's the one aspect of this movie which I will likely never resolve.

I'll likely do some future post on this movie again, after watching it once or twice more. For now, I recommend nearly anyone bring their brain and an open imagination to the theater to check this one out.