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"ARRIVAL"
(2016) (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Science-Fiction: When alien ships appear over a dozen different parts of the world, a linguist and a scientist are recruited to try and communicate with the extraterrestrials.
PLOT:
When alien starships arrive and take up position above 12 seemingly random spots around the globe, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (AMY ADAMS) and scientist Ian Donnelly (JEREMY RENNER) are recruited by the U.S. military to come to the Montana prairie site where one of the ships is situated. The operation is under the command of Colonel Weber (FOREST WHITAKER) and CIA Agent Halpern (MICHAEL STUHLBARG), who believe Louise and Ian are their best chance to decipher the aliens' language.

Once inside the ship, they discover that the extraterrestrial beings are a squid-like species that is trying to communicate with a series of symbols written in ink or smoke. Eventually, Louise and Ian are able to ascertain that specific symbols stand in for specific words. But they can never be one-hundred percent certain. When the word "weapon" is gleaned, for instance, Louise insists it could also mean "tool."

But the other governments monitoring the starships in their territories are increasingly on edge and ready for war, taking their cues from the aggressive Chinese General Shang (TZI MA). All the while, Louise has visions and nightmares of a daughter named Hannah (ABIGAIL PNIOWSKY) she lost to cancer at a young age. Eventually, Louise comes to learn that these memories of her little girl are directly tied into her efforts to understand the aliens, why there are here, and what exactly they want.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
"Arrival" is an alien-invasion movie for eggheads, elitists, intellectuals, and generally unhappy people who despise alien-invasion movies. It's the "Anti-Independence Day." Oh, there's plenty of awe and dread and spectacle throughout. But there is no joy, no showmanship, not a single moment where any of the characters cracks wise and lets just a little bit of air out of the balloon. It's been hailed a masterpiece. And the studio believes in it SO much that they are allowing reviewers to post reviews online early. And, as of Tuesday evening just a couple of nights before release, it has garnered one-hundred percent positive on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator website.

And I DO get the appeal of the film. Director Denis Villeneuve has followed up "Prisoners" and "Sicario" with another impressively crafted cinematic example of tone, mood, and atmosphere. A dozen alien ships arrive in Earth's atmosphere and position themselves at odd spots around the globe ... odd in that they don't hover over New York, Washington, Moscow, Tokyo, and so forth. So, if they do have a death ray they are about to unleash, it's only going to obliterate a prairie in Montana, a rural area in Venezuela, a suburb inů

Well, you get the picture. These E.T.'s are definitely NOT going for the landmarks. But why those 12 landing spots? Why now? What do they want? Why are they here? Infuriatingly, they don't answer. They just hover there. And the countries of the world wait, getting increasingly unnerved. From TV reports, we see the usual looting, rioting, and TV cable-news talking heads having completely different opinions on the matter. In such times, someone has to step up. And that someone is Dr. Louise Banks, a world-class linguist gifted in breaking down languages. The military under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruit her and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make first contact and hopefully decipher the alien language to see what they want.

As it turns out, Louise gets the squid-like beings to communicate in pictures that she draws on a tablet and the E.T's emit into thin air using smoke or ink from their tentacles. Slowly, she and Ian start to match their drawings with English words. It's an inexact, imprecise process. But communication does start to happen slowly. At the same time, Louise is plagued by nightmares and visions in her mind's eye of a daughter she lost at a young age to cancer. Before long, though, those moments where her mind wanders from the present to her time with Hannah start to take on cryptic meanings. The more she comes to understand the aliens' language, the more she adheres to the Sapir-Whorf theory that states the structure of a language either determines or greatly influences the modes of behavior and even thought.

When the aliens start to bring up the word "weapon" repeatedly, the governments of the world -- especially China and Russia -- begin to get trigger-happy. Does this mean the visitors are finally planning to launch an attack? Does it mean they want the countries of the world to war and see who would win in order to have one supreme leader to deal with? Or, as Louise points out, "weapon" could also mean something far more innocuous like "tool."

What keeps the audience's interest in the slow, plodding "Arrival" is the answer to that question. The danger becomes less if the aliens are hostile, but how hostile are we? Can Louise and Ian make a true breakthrough before human nature takes over and we try to kill what we have come to fear? I wish the film had more narrative momentum than Villeneuve gives it. At times, he seems to be challenging "Tree of Life"-era Terrence Malick. At other times, he comes dangerously close to going the M. Night Shyamalan huckster route with an ending that is aimed at subverting what you thought was one reality, but was actually another.

Heady stuff? You bet. But it's all done in such a muted, sleepy way ... like no one in the cast or crew got much sleep the longer the production went on. Most of the film appears to be shot at dusk and in the evening. Characters talk very low, very slow. Hey, I'm not asking for a Will Smith, "Oh you did NOT just shoot that green $^*# at me!" moment. But it would have been nice to have at least a moment or two where just one character was like, "Gosh-a-roonie! Those are some BIG spaceships!!!" The movie engaged my brain. But it didn't capture my heart or stir my soul. I give it a 5.5 out of 10 (T. Durgin)




Reviewed November 7, 2016 / Posted November 11, 2016


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