Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 11, 2016 6:56 pm 
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The Veteran's Day audience applauded when Villeneuve's Arrival ended, which hasn't happened often lately. There must be various causes. Maybe just the wonderment of having the hoary alien visit theme handled in a new way; or maybe Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ' music, which whips up a rousing mix of fear, joy, and awe; or maybe the personal story of the female protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, playing with her own thoroughly engaging mix of delicacy and courage), who seems to come to terms with grief in a way that transcends time. Anyway, Arrival has much to offer, even if in the end it treads conventional sci-fi tracks, and muddles the path.

What's really special about the film isn't the tall ovoid spaceships hovering over land in twelve different countries (though we don't get beyond the one in Montana), even if that particular shape is an arresting new variation on the theme. Rather, it's the importance Ted Chiang's short fiction "Story of Your Life," from which this is adapted, gives to the role of language. Dr. Banks is a university professor of linguistics and accomplished linguist who helped Military Intelligence with some Farsi nice and fast not long ago. So notes M.I.'s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Not as fast as you dealt with those terrorists, she replies. This time, she's confronted by Colonel Weber and his staff with something a lot tougher than Farsi - a recording of booming grunts and bangs that might come from some very maladjusted dolphins. It's the aliens, but she insists she has to meet the speakers face to face to begin to decipher their talk. A scientist-mathematician, Ian Donnelly (a very toned-down, neutralized Jeremy Renner) is called in as her partner and they're suited up in the most elaborate protective gear.

It's fun when it starts. Once in the bottom of the alien vessel, earth gravity vanishes, and the pair and their helpers slide and float to the viewing area. There, Amy Adams' gift for intensity and quietude and Villeneuve's knack for mystery keep us riveted for a good while.

What's maybe even scarier is that all the danger feared by military authorities seems in fact to be missing: no radioactivity, no toxicity of any kind, envelops these visitors, whose landing ships seem safer places to be than midtown Manhattan. Eventually it follows that Louise whips off her headgear and anti-radioactive jacket so the critters can see her, the better to grasp her language. It's completely baffling how she and the pair of giant elongated Octopi they name Abbott and Costello start understanding each other via writing, she spelling things like "HUMAN" and "LOUISE" on a white board at first, they replying by spewing ink into the fluid then live in in shapes like circular Rorschach blots. The two sides seem to make great strides toward mutual understanding, we don't know how. "Why are you here?" seems a tough one. Business or pleasure?

It seems their sense of time is very different, anyway. They're quite concerned about "helping" on something that will be coming up in three thousand years. It's not certain language has been pinned down. When Abbott (or is it Costello?) says something about a "weapon" Louise can't be sure if it's a threat, an arm, or a gift that's meant, or whether it's being offered or sought. But the word "weapon" is enough to cause a hullabaloo that reverberates around the globe. The other "arrival" sites include Russia and China and allies and they're growing increasingly suspicious and belligerent and ready to attack.

Such is the usual process of such tales. The difference here is that Louise and Ian, single handedly, keep the linguistic explorations and attempts at communication going for such a while - though all the movie's promises of showing us the riches of language study are abandoned. Louise and Ian and a host of lab techs just suddenly start working with a done-deal computer file of the circular blots matched with words, to put together sentences.

What happens after that is anyone's guess. While the pace and intensity at the outset have been mesmerizing, Villeneuve descends into a lulling maelstrom of Malickian reverie, fired by flashbacks to Louise's relations with a lost daughter, murmured hints about the aliens seeing time altogether differently, and the power of Jóhannsson’s music to imply some magic spell is being woven. There are several flash-forwards involving a mysterious phone call in Mandarin to a Chinese general and a loving scene between Ian and Louise. "When we thought it was them, it was really all about us," she intones. That's a shame. I'd think it was the essence of aliens that they are absolutely, definitely not us. Arrival begins well, approaches a familiar genre with a confident freshness, but then dissolves in muddle and hints of sentimentality. A missed opportunity. But the talented Villeneuve has attempted something different and more uplifting than hitherto. And Amy Adams is memorable.

In the end I think the point is clear. As Lawrence Sterne writes at the beginning of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, "we lie under so many impediments in communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to a total impossibility." And it's even worse with aliens; but with them at least we could take a little more time trying, before the guns come out.

Arrival, 116 mins., adapted from Ted Chiang's short fiction "Story of Your Life," debuted at Venice Sept. 2016, showing at 11 other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian, Busan, London, Vienna, Chicago and Tokyo. It opened in US theaters 11 Nov.; later in some other countries.

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