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
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.
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.
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).
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
Labels: Denis Villeneuve, Forest Whitaker, Sci-Fi films, Tzi Ma