Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) was in Budapest filming a remake of “Blade Runner” with Ryan Gosling, so no Red Carpet action for the closing film of the 52nd International Chicago Film Festival.
Amy Adams plays a linguist named Louise Banks who is drafted by the military to figure out how to communicate with aliens who land in 12 locations around the globe. Forest Whittaker has a small part as the reasonable representative of the military who fetches Adams for duty The reason for the appearance of these extra-terrestrial beings is a mystery to all, but figuring out how to speak to them would certainly help solve the question, “What do they want? Why are they here?”
Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist also assigned to the case. You just know that, at some point, there will be a romance between the two, but let’s not go there just yet. Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane and examine other movies about extra-terrestrial visits. The most noteworthy, of course, would be “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) which holds its own against this film. “Close Encounters” is, after all, the Gold Standard. I also thought of Jodie Foster’s “Contact” and even such oddities as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (David Bowie) and the primitive “The Day the Earth Stood Still” first released in the fifties and remade in 2008. All of these films have laid the groundwork for “Arrival”, so nothing wrong with examining “Arrival’s predecessors, even if it’s just a kids’ movie about an alien who wants to phone home. (“E.T.”).
The sounds the aliens make are very reminiscent of “Close Encounters” and the noises that whales make, coupled with moans, breathing noises (from Adams and Renner in their haz-mat suits), whooshing sounds and loud brass instruments. All of that sort of thing we’ve seen (or heard) before.
The alien ship itself resembles the Hindenburg, a black oval standing on end. It’s been described in other terms, but suffice it to say that, yes, it is creepy and effective as an alien spacecraft and the aliens are equally strange-looking.
What do they look like, you ask? They are heptapods, which means that they have 7 legs like a squid or an octopus. I jotted down the word “mollusks” and “starfish” at various points. There is so much dry ice fog in every shot that I almost got the feeling that the aliens were part of a rock band. (I haven’’t seen that much dry ice white fog since it totally blocked out Isaac Hayes playing the “Shaft” theme from that 2000 movie at the Academy Awards).
Early on, we learn that Amy Adams had a daughter she lost to an incurable disease. Fortunately, the film doesn’t dwell on this plot point, but there are frequent flashbacks to Amy’s relationship with her daughter. I remember finding it odd that the father’s face was not shown, but I think I understand why now—if it’s the “right” interpretation. I thought of Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” who has also just lost a child before going into space as an astronaut, so apparently it’s a pre-requisite for women undertaking dangerous missions in space that they be emotionally fragile following the death of a child.
I will say that this film seems like it should give way to a separate film that focuses exclusively on Amy Adams’ character, as she seems to have the ability to “see” the future. It was surprising, to me, that so little interest was shown in her unique abilities as the film winds down. Odd, that. She asks a poignant question of Jeremy Renner near film’s end, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Prior to that, she says, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.”
Some other plot points that might help you figure out one probable interpretation of the plot, (hopefully without actually giving it away), are these lines: “Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order. I remember moments in the middle…There are days that define your story beyond your understanding.”
I’ve described both the alien spaceship and the aliens themselves and anyone who has seen a sci fi movie since the fifties will know that there is always some government stooge who immediately wants to blast the aliens. In this movie that role is played by Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpen. The experts can’t figure out why the 12 ships have landed in the selected locations (in the U.S., it’s Montana) At one point, they throw out the theory that all of the countries where the 12 alien ships have made an appearance were countries where Sheena Easton had a hit in the eighties. (Pretty sure that was a joke, Son.)
One other important plot point that viewers planning on attending this movie should know is that the aliens have a very fluid concept of time. This seems to be a characteristic they share with the writers. At one point the idea is thrown out that, if you learn a foreign language, you might think in a different way due to being immersed in the language…a sort of “brain training.” The line “You can see time the way they do” is thrown out at one point, and it certainly does seem that Louise has some major-league “gifts” that we normal folk don’t have, when it comes to seeing what the future may hold.
The movie is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. I have a feeling that some of the movie-going public are going to go away very confused by the film and the way in which the plot jumps around in time.
The rest of you—real movie buffs—are going to enjoy discussing this film at length in the same way that serious movie buffs enjoyed discussing the meaning(s) hidden in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Twelve Monkeys.”