Review: Tense ‘Arrival’ Wonders if Aliens Are Here to Help

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There is nothing in film better than good sci-fi and Arrival may be one of the best we’ve seen in years.

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In the realm of science fiction, this story is realistic and grounded. Twelve 1,500-foot-tall pods (looking very much like giant, black zucchini) land in various locations around the globe. Well, they don’t exactly land….they kind of hover about 20 feet above the ground, sea, mountains, or whatever area they descended over from the sky. Needless to say, various governments around the world become acutely anxious about their pod-in-residence.

The Chinese, Russians, Sudanese, Americans, all reflect their national identities in how they plan to respond to the pods. The American response is to send a military intelligence officer, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to gather up a leading linguistic scholar, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to create a team to communicate with the aliens. Every 18 hours the aliens provide access to their pods. Upon entering a pod, Dr. Banks’ team engages the extraterrestrials in trying to learn each other’s language. We won’t go further in describing this element of the plot, because it is far more fun see it in the movies. But, we will tell you that the alien language sounds very much like what you would hear if you put a stethoscope to the stomach of a person who had just eaten a sausage pizza.

This sci-fi film is unusual in that it doubles as a ”chick flick.” The only other film of this genre I can recall is Contact starring Jody Foster (1997). The sub story of Arrival is focused on Dr. Banks’ relationship with her daughter. How the subplot and the main story, the communication with the aliens, interact is the defining feature of the movie. People who are attuned to little details on the screen will have a leg up in figuring out what is going on in the film. The rest of the movie-going population may be leaving the theater saying, “What just happened?” but will ultimately figure it out. A slight advantage can be obtained by reading Language, Thought and Reality, a collection of Benjamin Whorf’s writings, first published in 1957.

In most sci-fi, the story dominates the performances of the actors, as it does in Arrival, but Adams performance helps propel the film to greater heights. The special effects are always important and this film uses them in truly imaginative ways.

Directed by Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario), based on a Ted Chiang story, casting credit should be given to the person who lined up the aliens (we all know that casting directors are the unsung heroes of cinema), for the aliens performed their roles with a high level of integrity.

Arrival is a movie that will have great appeal beyond the usual sci-fi lover. It opens nationwide on Nov. 11.

Check out the trailer below.

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