They’re ba-ack! Once again, E.T. has arrived, this time with an ominous display of colossal space stations spread over a dozen global locations, including Montana. We’ve seen this premise dozens of times and the initial encounter doesn’t always work that well for the home team. Hovering over earth with an intimidating presence, we ask why?
Why are they here? What do they want? In any close encounter, someone is minimally going to get an alien probe, if you know what we mean. But, instead of the requisite mass devastation of “Independence Day” (1996), “Arrival” is an alien sci-fi movie without the inter-galactic battles and CGI assault on our senses. Whaaat?
Based on Ted Chiang’s 50-page novella, “Story of Your Life” (1998), “Arrival” is more in the cautionary spirit of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), shortly after nukes were first introduced to our world. Every kid learned the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” in case confronted by the original iron man.
There is no obvious logic to where these saucers landed or why, but every 18 hours, the doors open for 15 minutes. Inside the modest hallway, there is minimal gravity. Behind a glass wall are large heptapods, creatures with seven tentacles spewing ink onto the wall as kind of a hieroglyphic Rorschach blot meaning something more than “nanu-nanu!”
The magnificent Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to interpret the intent of the mysterious visitors. Louise must dissect the patterns and speculate on the meaning. More important, she must avoid miscommunications that could have a devastating impact on their actions.
In the first scenes of the movie, we learn of her sorrow and loneliness, having lost her husband to divorce and beloved teenage daughter to cancer. But she confidently doesn’t believe in beginnings or ends. Joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they struggle to learn from the heptapods, via drawings on a white board and mathematical patterns. In between, we learn more of Louise’ life via a series of flashbacks.
In our world, we fear what we do not understand. Globally, there is a heightened sense of nationalism that allows fear-mongering politicians and radio hosts to run amok. Suspicious and reluctant to share information with each other, the nations reach varying conclusions at odds with each other’s interest. Although the aliens have displayed no aggressive behavior, the independent decisions could yield cataclysmic effects.
As the nations prepare to war against each other, Louise and Ian race against time for answers. They must take a risk that could threaten their lives, and quite possibly, that of the entire human race. This movie isn’t so much about the arrival of an inter-galactic threat as our ability to work with other nations at a time we can’t even work together amongst ourselves. “Arrival” is not about them. We met the enemy, and it is us.
Cinematographer Bradford Young shot under the gray Montreal skies while composer Johann Johannsson scored a most interesting and disorienting score bordering on annoying, but maybe that’s the point. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) then takes the pacing and tone of the picture into a vibe of “2001 A Space Odyssey” (1968). That will thrill serious sci-fi aficionados, while baffling the average movie enthusiast
“Arrival” is 116 minutes and rated PG-13 for brief strong language. This is a different kind of sci-fi flick. The last attempt at an intelligent thriller might be “Interstellar” (2014).
It was also thought provoking, but unfortunately, got lost in its own esoteric arrogance. This one is profound, but slow paced, often manipulative and borders on pretentious.
Renowned scientist Stephen Wolfram and son Christopher were consulted to ensure the terminology, graphics and depictions were sound, especially as the story transcended into time loops. Instead of outer space, the story moves to inner space. Maybe we just didn’t get it. Like “The Matrix,” we’ll ask our kids to explain it to us.