J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival: Talking Alien

Use of voice-overs in film get a bad rap, but in this case, it makes sense, because it is a story that directly addresses the challenges of communication. A mysterious alien race has made first contact, so all the earthly governments are desperate to know why. However, to ask the $64,000 question, they must first establish a mean of reliable communication. That task will fall on linguist Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival (trailer here), Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Ted Chiang short story, “The Story of Your Life,” which opens today nationwide.

When twelve imposing wedge-shaped space ships appear, randomly distributed across the Earth, the freaked-out populace can hardly tear themselves away from news broadcasts, sort of like New York this week. Having produced some timely Farsi translations for the U.S. military, Dr. Banks has the necessary clearances to head up the team that will attempt to communicate with the Heptapods hovering somewhere over the Montana plains. It will be a tricky undertaking, because the written and spoken forms of the Heptapod are so different from any earthly language.

With the assistance of mathematician Ian Donnelly, Dr. Banks will make slow but steady progress in their regular meetings with the Heptapods they dub “Abbott” and “Costello.” Unfortunately, the PLA’s decision to withdraw China from the global strategy consortium rattles the rest of the nations. They are clearly preparing to engage militarily, but Dr. Banks fears their chess-based methodology has built-in militaristic misconceptions.

When the full meaning and significance of the Heptapod language clicks into place for Banks, it entails some of the biggest picture science fiction conceivable. Yet, the film is a surprisingly intimate character study. It is also reasonably faithful to the short story, but the nearly two-hour film never feels padded or unduly gussied-up for multiplex audiences. In fact, it is decidedly moody and esthetically Spartan, yet it still manages to be surprisingly poignant and life-affirming (although one hackneyed bit of climatic dialogue generated some unfortunate laughter at its MoMA Contenders screening).

Amy Adams perfectly suits the smart but brittle Dr. Banks, in a reserved kind of way. Forest Whitaker does his hard-charging, no-nonsense thing as Colonel Weber. Jeremy Renner is competently watchable as Donnelly, but Tzi Ma scores one of the film’s biggest surprises, electrifying a key third act sequence as PLA Gen. Shang.

The special effects are terrific throughout the film, precisely because they never overwhelm or over-awe. They merely bring this somewhat ominous near-future world to life. This really is intelligent science fiction that pays off emotionally. Highly recommended for sf fans who appreciate the theoretical and philosophical implications, Arrival opens today (11/11) nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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