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Movie Review: Arrival
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Adam Frazier   |  @   |  
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Movie Review: Arrival

Arrival
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien, Sangita Patel
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2016

“Where do they come from? What do they want?”

First contact, the introductory meeting between humanity and extraterrestrial life, was a common theme in the work of H. G. Wells, most notably in 1898’s The War of the Worlds and 1901’s The First Men in the Moon. The term itself, however, wasn’t coined until 1945, with American author Murray Leinster’s novelette, “First Contact.”

Since then, filmmakers have been fascinated by what that pivotal moment would be like, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Independence Day (1996), and Contact (1997). Most recently, we’ve seen first contact — combined with the message from space trope — in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

What’s interesting about Leinster’s story, however, is that it introduces yet another science fiction storytelling convention — the universal translator. A device that can translate any language, the universal translator removes communication barriers between humans and alien lifeforms. You’ve seen this sort of thing in The Cat from Outer Space (1978) and The Last Starfighter (1984), where a collar or lapel pin magically translates brain waves into perfect English.

I mention all of this seemingly useless information to point out that first contact is the basis of nearly every science fiction film you’ve ever seen, and yet it has been imagined in so many different ways that we continue to be compelled by the concept. Enter Arrival, the latest film by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), a profound and poignant first contact story about our relationship with language and how it shapes the way we perceive the world.

Based on Ted Chiang‘s 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life,” Arrival begins with the appearance of extraterrestrial spacecraft that touch down across the planet. The film’s universal translator is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, American Hustle), a linguist recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to make contact with the aliens and determine their intent. She is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, Captain America: Civil War), a physicist who hopes to communicate with the extraterrestrials through mathematics, the universal language.

The aliens, known as heptapods due to their seven-pointed, radially symmetrical forms, have a strange way of communicating. Their written language is a series of inky, abstract circles that look like coffee stains. As someone who studies the anthropological significance of language, Banks must decipher the heptapod circles before the earth’s military forces start a global war with the visitors. She becomes so immersed in the language of the giant squid-like beings, nicknamed Abbott and Costello, that she begins to dream in their language. The more she understands it, the more the language alters the way she experiences reality.

Arrival is a wondrous science fiction drama with breathtaking imagery and a deeply affecting emotional story. Amy Adams is simply phenomenal here. The actress brings vulnerability, sensitivity, and a fierce intelligence to her character, with a layer of melancholia just under the surface. Throughout the film, Banks is going through a mourning process, having recently lost her daughter. Like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, she’s searching for meaning, something she hopes to find inside the spacecraft. Her performance is so strong that we never doubt these visitors from outer space. We are truly in awe of the heptapods, and we delight in Banks’ interactions with them; the interstellar equivalent of a human swimming with humpback whales.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) has a lot of layers, dealing with our relationship with death and nature, our understanding of time, and an appreciation for the mystery that is life. It’s a soul-stirring film that balances dread and optimism, providing a cathartic experience that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Villeneuve continues to be a captivating filmmaker, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. We desperately need more movies like Arrival, films that trade in hope and humility, empathy and understanding, instead of fear, narcissism, xenophobia, and the promise of total annihilation.

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