In a warped way, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve will always have a special (if slightly macabre) place in my heart. He directed the movie “Prisoners” which I watched with Michelle in late September 2013 at the old Edmonds Theater. I reviewed the movie here. Around 10pm that night, after we got home, we found out we were pregnant with our daughter Naomi. This revelation happening after we viewed a movie about child kidnapping and torture.
“Prisoners” was a very good film but I suppose one could criticize it for being overwrought in some places. Villeneuve has moved on to directing the new science fiction thinker “Arrival” and I’m pleased to report that the result is nothing short of a masterpiece coming from a tight and brilliant screenplay from Eric Heisserer. The work is based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
During “Arrival”‘s opening scene, the camera shows us a darkened kitchen/ living room with big windows looking out over a lake. The string music soundtrack is melancholy. Louise Banks (the always great Amy Adams) lives here alone. She is a linguist professor at a local college. The audience is subjected to her vivid memories, rapid fire edits of an adorable daughter at various ages interacting and playing with Banks. The child is no longer with her and we suspect unthinkable tragedy.
While Banks is teaching her class one day, she grows annoyed by the constant barrage of cell phone noise from the few students she has in her class. As the pupils check their phone messages, they urge Professor Banks to immediately turn on the television. A world event has happened. Mysterious alien space ships have landed at 12 places all over the world for no discernible reason and are in a suspended state of hovering off the ground. Director Villeneuve, at first, doesn’t show us the spacecrafts. We are fixated on the facial reactions of Banks in the foreground and her students behind her.
US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up soon after in Banks’ office. She has worked for the government before and now she is being asked to help communicate with the aliens using her expert linguistic skills applied to a completely alien language. After she agrees, we meet a quantum physicist named Ian Donnelly (the well-played Jeremy Renner). Donnelly, while reading Banks’ book on the plane, notes her writing where she says that language (and thereby communication) are the cornerstones of any society. He disagrees and thinks it is science. Who do you think wins this argument in the end?
To go much further would spoil the compelling experience of watching this film. Villeneuve’s movie is stunningly intelligent, deeply tragic, but also surprisingly hopeful. How the director pulled off balancing these themes and tensions alongside screenwriter Heisserer with pretty much flawless execution is a mini-miracle. There is a revelation toward the end of the film that truly knocked me on my ass. The ability of this moment to entirely change one’s perception of the story as well as the interpretation of the film is a welcomed jolt.
Obviously at heart, this film is about how we communicate, the ideas that can get lost in translation and the devastating consequences when we fail to listen and understand each other (even down to simple words and phrases and how they are interpreted). Fear and hysteria can block the necessary means by which we need to communicate and if we don’t talk, utter destruction could be just around the corner. I imagine this project has been planned for years but for this to land in our time now of fakes news and partisan outrage/ warfare, it becomes instructively prophetic.
If an alien invasion did happen on earth, it probably would look extremely similar to this film. Talking heads on TV predicting doom, worldwide riots and unrest, a military on high alert with paranoid leaders pushing for warfare, and scientists working quickly to try and comprehend what an event like this could mean. Who is right? Maybe this is a dangerous situation where fear is an actual genuine (and necessary) concern. Maybe there needs to be more time to truly understand the aliens before drastic and violent options are exercised. Banks and Donnelly are pushing for the latter while Colonel Weber is holding off his superiors from military action while those superiors remind the scientists of what happened in history when technologically advanced civilizations met indigenous people.
MINI-SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH: There was a scene that struck me specifically and it was not a major scene and seems like a smaller note in the overall movie. Amy Adams as Banks had been removing her Hazmat suit in the alien vessel so the creatures can see her face and expressions. She walks close to the aliens which are separated from her by a large glass wall. Reaching up, she places her hand on the glass and the alien creature on the other side does the same action. Banks is overcome by a powerful vision that nearly knocks her over. Her daughter, in the familiar rapid editing cuts, is seen again and Banks, with her daughter, joyously play. What Banks is experiencing is a profound sense of love and perhaps (if we stretch a little but it may not be so much of a stretch) a transcendent religious experience from being hand-to-hand with the alien on the glass wall. We have a word for what she felt in the core of her being: love but this is just a word. How do we communicate to others an experience like this when words may fail? END SPOILER PARAGRAPH
I had not been to the theater in months as I’m enjoying being a dad with a 2 year old and 2 month old at home but this was a very welcomed return. “Arrival” is one of the best and most thoughtful science fiction films to come out in years. Not only that, it is one of the very best of 2016 (as far as I have seen).