Amy Adams Arrival

ARRIVAL Review: Setbacks, Brief Glory, the Stuff of Life

Monday, November 14, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Gloved fingers reach out for a semi-smooth surface, timid at first, with a touch of terror keeping them from greedily grabbing whole handfuls of the unknown. But that fear cannot overcome curiosity, a scientist’s need to know. There is a gentle connection of fingers to what appears to be black granite while nervous energy hums from both the foreign object and within the fingers themselves. There is a sense that these two things, which have come together in this brief moment, will never understand each other. After all, rubber gloves remain on the reaching scientist’s hands and the black stone is a blank slate, almost teasingly so, as if to say, “Just try to figure me out, you small-minded ignoramus.”

Photo credit: Arrival Movie/Facebook

And yet, the two don’t stop trying to get to know each other in Arrival, the latest effort from director Denis Villeneuve. Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert and college professor who is reeling from the loss of her teen daughter to a rare disease. Her ex-husband isn’t around, either, so when 12 alien spacecraft -- they look like contact lenses made out of the black material described above -- make “landfall” (really they hover a couple ladders’ height off the ground) at various positions around the globe, she has nothing else to do but assist the government in developing a communication system with the tentacled creatures from beyond. She aches, so she is primed for connection. She is unwilling to close herself off despite setbacks and “progress” that at times resembles utter, apocalyptic failure. Sometimes those two things are one and the same.

That’s because Arrival is not a feel-good picture about light heartedness. It is concerned with how nose-to-the-grindstone hard work, frustrating as it can be, is often the only path toward grace. Failure is joy. Success is melancholy. It all depends on how you view the situation, whether you look forward or backward, and whether you are prepared to accept that failure and success follow each other, sometimes rapidly. In understanding that simple fact of life, you can appreciate the little things more acutely, from a little girl’s drawing of her parents to how upset she gets when she can’t figure out which vocabulary word she wants to say. It’s not necessarily about enjoying those small moments so much as accepting them and being grateful for them regardless of the emotions they bring you -- they create you and that’s worth something.

Villeneuve and company build a movie that wanders through these themes gently. It is not a blunt picture and it arrives at its point slowly, requiring patience -- but it’s not just patience for the viewer. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, adapting Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” have frustration on the mind. Their characters, including Louise and her partner, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), race against the clock of human nature -- governments around the world quickly turn on the seemingly nonviolent aliens and each other when they can’t get an easy answer right away -- get little to no sleep. They rub their temples staring at charts of the new written language they try to build on the fly in order to talk to the aliens, which write using inkblots they eject from their hands -- the shapes of their “sentences” look like the water rings you leave on your coffee table. The aliens are frustrated, too, because they can’t get their point across without billions of people (and thousands of especially scared bureaucrats) second guessing them, misinterpreting their words into threats.

Visually, Villeneuve has different things on his mind than he did with last year’s Sicario. Whereas that drug war drama heightened the tension of a border conflict with furious reds and oranges at sunset, Arrival is more concerned with the moments just after the sun has set. Light is still there, but, as noted by Louise and Ian as they hide in the bed of a military pickup truck to contemplate the monumental task that lies ahead of them (despite the continual frustration they have already experienced), there’s a quiet resignation to the notion, “Whatever happens, happens.” They hope they can break through in this colossal undertaking, building a new language (and understanding of the time-space continuum) in a month’s time. But they aren’t so sure they’ll be upset if they fail. They still get to make contact with sentient beings from another place in the universe, get to give them names, (Abbott and Costello, because Ian is a fan of 1930s buddy comedies, it appears), and get to do something important for the fate of the human species regardless of the outcome.

Villeneuve and director of photography Bradford Young (replacing Roger Deakins, the legend who lensed Sicario) don’t go for awe, and it’s the right choice. The aliens’ ship is more like a floating cave than a high tech hub of gizmos and blinking lights. This is a place of business, a place for negotiation, a place of quiet elegance and contemplation. These visitors to Earth have a purpose and, despite every barrier in their way (language, perception, trustworthiness, etc.), they will find a way to tell humanity that purpose. They will create a different way to view language and time itself. They will teach us that, regardless of the emotional cost, we need to view every moment of our lives (including and maybe even especially the bad stuff) in order to have a fuller appreciation for the time we spent here.

Director: Denis Villeuneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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