Arrival movie cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Arrival movie director: Denis Villeneuve
A linguist at the vanguard against aliens. Who come in a spaceship that hangs like a comma, between a beginning and an end. A film that throws up such a vivid visual image — transported from Ted Chiang’s award-winning book Story of Your Life — should know the value of words. Both said and unsaid. And yet, Arrival is so conscious of its own loquaciousness that it drowns in it.
The linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), can’t stop talking about how there are no beginnings and endings, but “some days that define your story”. The aliens, or Heptapods, write in a smoky, hieroglyphic script whose letters are circles bookended by inky splotches. Louise’s daughter Hannah’s name is a palindrome or spelt the same way backwards and forwards. Heptapods are revealed to see time in a linear fashion, so no start and finish. The film can’t even resist from suggesting Louise’s house as a simulation of the Heptapod home.
And if all that is not enough to underline the illusion of time, Villeneuve — a director of no mean repute after Sicario — keeps flashing back to Louise and Hannah’s tender moments. The daughter dies at the start of the film, of a disease that shall not be named. Amidst tall grasses, against setting suns, over clinging hugs, these shots are very, very Terence Malik-like.
That is a disappointment given how Villeneuve and his team create a distinctive alien world that, after many, many films, is truly unearthly. We watch transfixed as the spaceship hangs there in a Montana field, and Louise, theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) and the US Army General (Forrest Whitaker) commanding this operation enter it. It is a giant hollow, shaped like a sliced egg — another suggestion of a beginning — amidst floating, darkish clouds. Inside, there is no gravity, while rough, ordinary walls rise up to a rectangular transparent glass. On the other side of the glass are two Heptapods, whom Ian dubs Abbott and Costello.
Twelve of these spaceships have emerged out of nowhere and are parked now around the world. Of them, only one site, given the experience of disaster films, may surprise you — Pakistan. Clearly, the aliens, whether seeking peace or war, require better planning.
The US Army recruits Louise for this operation, as the professor earlier helped them translate “Farsi to catch insurgents”. They hope the language expert can help decipher the moanings they have recorded, believed to be the Heptapod language, so that they can know the purpose of this alien invasion. Ian is their other civilian recruit.
The entire world is at work, but the cooperation quickly dissipates. “Chairman of China’s PLA” deals the first blow to the detente, and Russia and Pakistan quickly follow — though, to the film’s credit, the Pakistanis do give the first clue about how the thing could be talking. This could have been Arrival’s most acute observation, on how common language isn’t the only key to keep communication going, but the film appears to not notice it.
On the other hand, Louise goes about translating Heptapods in a manner that is obtuse at best — and incongruous at worst when a decisive word comes up that is difficult to imagine in a normal conversation. From there on, the cliches and trite dialogues surmount (again, tragic, for a film celebrating a linguist).
There is one takeaway, though. In one of those lines that Arrival just throws in randomly, Louise tells the General that he should ask the other linguist the Army is looking at, “the meaning of the Sanskrit word for war”.
You see, she later answers triumphantly, it is “a desire for more cows”.
That explains a lot.
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