The key point of this movie is a question that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) asks of her husband, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) near its conclusion. “If you knew the future, is there anything you would do to change?” (For example, if your boyfriend proposed to you and you knew that you would be divorced in ten years and that nothing could change this fate, what would you answer?) But here’s a warning. What comes at the end of “Arrival” is actually the question she asked after some fourteen years. And the lecture with which Dr. Banks opens the movie while students are distracted by the arrival of alien spaceships occurs over fourteen years ago. In directing the movie, Denis Villeneuve, who will be at the helm of “Blade Runner 2049” next year, plays with the circularity of time. So when Dr. Banks phones the president of China to ask him to call off a planned war, how did she know his cell number? The answer: she is to meet him at an elegant reception weeks, months or years later at which time he would give Banks his number. She knew this because she can see the future, as can other characters in the long tradition of sci-fi. But Villeneuve puts his distinct stamp on his adaption of Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” which won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella and also the 1999 Sturgeon Award. (Sci fi fans will be acquainted with these prestigious groups.)
“Arrival” is no “Godzilla,” no “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” no “War of the Worlds.” There is just a single episode of explosive action, which would be good news for some cineastes but not so great for those who love lots and lots of physical violence on the screen. The short book by Chiang is intellectual, exploring themes like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the language that the people of a country speak has an influence on their culture) and Fermat’s principle of least time, which we’ll leave to the theoretical physicists. The themes are determinism and language, meaning that overall, Villeneuve, Chiang, and scripter Eric Heisserer deal with the role of fate vs. free will. This will sounds scary, maybe, but it’s all cleared up in the film.
As Louise Banks, Amy Adams anchors the plot as a professor of linguistics. Near the opening she is lecturing a class on why Portuguese is not a Romance language when she learns of the arrival of alien spaceships that have landed in several global locations. She is called out to Montana by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) because the U.S., as well as the rest of the nations that received the landings, need to communicate. Should the world be on a war footing? Are the aliens friendly? Much depends on Dr. Banks’s chat with two of these folks from a ship that is 1,500 feet high, needed to house the passengers who are some twenty feet tall themselves. With their octopus-like tentacles the heptapods speak, but what comes across is a loud whine. So Banks depends on their writing, which looks like circular inkblots. She somehow figures out that their written language does not have a logical syntax, but when she makes out the word “weapon,” the army is on alert. What does “weapon” mean? Banks has the assistance of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), which signals to the audience that we may be in for a romantic interlude.
Amy Adams, a busy actress who will play a key role in revenge drama “Nocturnal Animals” to be released November 18, conducts herself with appropriate restraint, regularly cooling the heels of countries around the world who are ready to blast the oval spaceships but who allow her considerable time to parse the visual, hieroglyphics-like language of the visitors. She benefits from Louis Morin’s visuals effects to create a Spielbergen sense of wonder. But patience is required. Banks meets too many times with the visitors, each time learning just small degrees of knowledge, but eventually proves to use her knowledge in acquiring a wisdom that she shares with the world.
Filming took place in Quebec, which is the director's home province. Ted Chiang’s collection that includes “Story of Your Life” is available at Amazon for under $10.
Unrated. 116 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner