Friday, November 25, 2016

Arriving at a Conclusion

Early this week, I went to see the new science fiction film Arrival. It's just as well that I had vacation stories to share, because I found myself really having to ponder the movie a while before (ahem) arriving (sorry) at just how I felt about it.

Arrival is a pure science fiction tale, a more realistic attempt to depict what would happen if aliens made contact with Earth. Twelve ships arrive at twelve different locations around the globe, and countries the world over are struggling to communicate with the aliens aboard them. Linguist Louise Banks is heading up the American efforts to decipher the aliens' strange language, even as she's emotionally wrestling with a personal tragedy -- the loss of her daughter to a terminal disease.

I definitely liked Arrival, and knew it even as I was walking out of the theater. The question in my mind was how much did I like it? Because I definitely think the movie starts stronger than it ends, and processing the movie's final act was not a quick, easy thing to do.

I can say without reservation that the movie's set up is outstanding. It's hard at times to say where the credit should go to the original short story writer (Ted Chiang), the screen writer (Eric Heisserer), or the director (Denis Villeneuve), but the result is pitch perfect. These aliens feel truly alien. Their written language is both unusual, and a perfect reflection of what we ultimately come to understand about them. Their ship is ominous, the process of boarding it is creepy, and the way we follow Louise's first meeting with them is suspenseful.

I was also impressed at the way the movie made linguistics (and, to some extent, diplomacy) urgent and interesting. The middle of the film is largely about the learning process of communicating, and manages to include a lot of complex ideas that aren't inherently cinematic. The story touches on how different cultures approach the aliens in different ways, on the bureaucracy that would inevitably complicate any alien encounter, and on the different ways that people would react to confirmation of alien life. And it does all this while ultimately keeping the characters as important a focus as the narrative.

I'm just not entirely sure about the final act. Here, in my opinion, is where story and script and director don't work as well in concert. On the page, the conclusion does make sense, and is "earned" by everything we see preceding it. But I feel that to put it on screen, some cheats had to be made -- both visual and editorial. I can't get more specific without giving away vital story details that would absolutely rob the movie of its punch. I can only say generally that the pacing of the last act felt a bit off to me. And it didn't quite leave me with the satisfaction of seeing a magician execute a great illusion; I had a twinge of feeling like a con artist had played a shell game. Though as that feeling has ebbed over the past week, my opinion of the movie has risen.

Amy Adams carries the movie ably as the main character Louise. She's put through an emotional wringer throughout the story, and every moment feels honest. To some extent, the film feels gender-flopped from the norm, and in a good way; Jeremy Renner plays the scientist Ian, who often feels like the "sidekick woman" character a more conventional film would have. I mean to say: Renner is fine here, but the movie doesn't ask him to do great things. It's always about Amy Adams' Louise, so much so that I can't even really say much about the rather stock military character played by a freaking Academy Award winner, Forest Whitaker.

Overall, I feel like this movie is riding the line for me between a B+ and an A-. Either way, it's worth seeing for anyone who likes science fiction, the more sophisticated and challenging the better.

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