ARRIVAL departs from author Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story Of Your Life” by veering from the original’s more benign course to the peril-invoking schemata required by movie box-office philosophy logic (the audience will pay more attention—in greater numbers—if you threaten them a little). Concession granted for pacing, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay retains the basic smarts of the piece, intriguing deliberations that made for a soft and welcome landing in 2016, finding a niche in the science-fiction genre among its more thought-provoking visitors, leaving monsters and light-shows to the fields standard issue explosion-fests.*
The Earth is awed, fascinated and panic-stricken when a fleet of giant alien spacecraft hover at various spots around the globe. Among the rattled nations sending out teams to meet, greet and feel out the intentions of the new arrivals, at the landing (or hovering) zone in Montana, a linguistics specialist and a physicist are selected by military officials to communicate with the visitors; elephant-sized, seven-limbed ‘hectapods’ who clearly wish to make contact—but what for? Personal issues turn inside out, facing off with matters of security and the closer the social ambassadors get to truth, the further the fight-flight response is ratcheted up among the understandably nervous, trigger-tripped militaries. Stall & consider or stand & deliver? Talk or shoot? Evolve & learn or fight & die?
The story and script deal in weighty concepts like predestination and free will, examined through the complexities of linguistics, physics and causality, refracted through the personal evolution of the main character. The brain-twisting is goosed by bringing in contemporary global political players and the fear factor of Joe Earthling represented by our omnipresent guard dogs, the military. As indicated by his previous work on the gripping Incendies and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve is keen on idea & relationship centered stories, but he also knows how to keep things moving, so the tension control is at a steady hum while the actors bandy theorem.
Helped mightily by good players—the never-less-than-special Amy Adams quietly dominating court with Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner—and a superb sound crew, it makes a swell 116 minutes of pay-attention material. While the visuals of the alien craft are effective, the consistently dark color palette Villeneuve asked of cinematographer Bradford Young seems more sombre than even the deeper-than-average thematic set-up requires. Favoring available light (ala The Revenant ), mostly interiors and at dusk, it’s as recessed as Clint Eastwood’s washed-down tones from the likes of Pale Rider or J. Edgar: sometimes it feels like you’re wearing sunglasses, a minor subjective carp on an otherwise solid show. Production designer Patrice Vermette on the choice of placement for the alien craft was that their “ships would travel across the universe and end the journey by hovering twenty-eight feet above the ground in delicate equilibrium, leaving it to Earth’s people to make the final outreach to contact them.” A design highlight is the creation of a language for the heptapods and an array of over 100 logo-grams to illustrate, so the audience can follow the learning curve of Adams and Renner. The credit for this impressive aspect—vital to the visual impact on screen as well as the story– goes to Vermette’s wife, Martine Bertrand, an artist from Montreal, where the movie was filmed.
A suitable Oscar winner for Sound Editing, it was nominated for Best Picture, Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography (well…), Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Production Design. Costing $47,000,000, earning $198,000,000, with Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien. I’d watch Amy Adams read a history of peat moss.
* Wait—they use big words and nothing blows up? Science-fiction on film too often skips the pondering and falls back on special effects and makeup, a dilemma shared by Fantasy pictures in general: for every The Lord Of The Rings, you have to flush a shire-load of pretenders to the throne. As for ever-limping cousin Horror, there has been a renaissance of late, with Style Meet Brain shining in works like It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, The Babadook and The Shallows. Though listening to ‘serious’ sci-fi Klattu’s on the spiel is like going to the dentist—in 1790—they do have a gripe. The originator, author Chiang, was pleased: “I think it’s that rarest of the rare in that it’s both a good movie and a good adaptation… And when you consider the track record of adaptations of written science fiction, that’s almost literally a miracle.”
With no purity-of-purpose dog in the fight, I quite enjoyed this film, and pretty much ‘got it’, though I wasn’t quite as bowled over as many. For me, its payoff had a bit of the—maybe unavoidable—conundrum of many Big Idea projects in that an arresting premise is hatched, it’s fed by a host of details, and it seems to be leading to some revelation that will be so Important it will change you—in your seat or on your couch— as much as the mist-eyed characters in the plot. I guess I need to make peace that The Idea is the destination. For certain here, its calm-down-and-think approach is welcome in a cinema vein usually pulsing with noise and less-logical logic. It joins a pipe-smoking club occupied by Metropolis, Things To Come, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters Of The 3rd Kind, Gattaca, Contact and Ex Machina. Start listing the ray-gun crowd and we’d be here until 2025—“if Man is still alive“—but that’s looking less likely by the day. Man met Science on the road back to the cave.