Monday, November 14, 2016


Arrival is a smart sci-fi movie that is far more about us than it is about the aliens. How do we communicate with aliens? How do we react to them? And, very importantly, how do we trust them when we can't even manage to trust each other?

I highly recommend seeing this movie before the twist gets spoiled for you. Well, twists. There are a few. It is one of those, like Sixth Sense, in which the shock is important for the full emotional impact.

The set-up for the plot is pretty straightforward. Aliens have arrived on Earth in twelve strange, silent craft. They are not aggressive, but they are also not communicative. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), one of the foremost linguists on the planet, is summoned to help establish communications. She is successful, but what she learns will change humanity to its core.

Ultimately, the movie is about exploring several intellectual puzzles. There are linguistic puzzles. How do you establish communication with a race that you have, literally, nothing in common with? Does the language that you think in affect the way that you think (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)? There are game theory puzzles. How much information can you afford to give up in order to gain more information? How can you establish trust with beings that you can barely communicate with? There are ethical puzzles. And there are puzzles that I can't tell you about because they are spoilers.

There are also deep emotional currents woven through the story, primarily dealing with Louise's daughter Hannah, who dies in her teens. Adams' exceptional acting skills really make these moments shine. She also beautifully plays off of Forrest Whitaker as the gruff, no-nonsense colonel in charge of the alien contact site, and off of Jeremy Renner as the overly intellectual theoretical physicist assisting with the project. It's the acting, more than anything else, that really makes this movie special.

I do have a couple of issues with the movie. One was an overuse of shaky-cam to add motion and chaos to several scenes. Mostly, I'm just really, really tired of shaky-cam. There's a fine line between adding motion, and adding motion sickness. Two was that I felt that the aliens were too magical. We can't analyze the material of their ships. They take nothing in, they give nothing off. There is no detectable communication between the ships. And the footage of their departure, while heart-breakingly beautiful, was similarly fantastical. There was no reason for them to be so inscrutable, except to narrow the entire conflict down to the linguistics.

The twist was also fascinating. (There are actually multiple twists, but they are all part of each other, and flow from a single plot device.) It upends everything you think the movie is about. At the time, I found it deeply moving and emotionally satisfying. I have to say, though, that my wife had the opposite reaction. She felt that it cheapened and betrayed everything that had been seen, and especially raised serious ethical questions about the characters. It made her very angry. (In fairness, it's a plot device that she has trouble with in general.) The more that I reflect on it, the more that I have to admit that there are serious ethical questions raised. It also creates a number of fridge moments, in that certain actions simply don't make sense once you take the twist into account.

I definitely recommend seeing it. If nothing else, like Inception and Pulp Fiction, this is a movie that people will be talking about. If you want to take part in cocktail party conversation this holiday season, it's best to be part of the in crowd here. It's also a really wonderfully done movie, that presses the emotional buttons deftly and lets go before it becomes too much.

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