Amy Adams stars as a linguist reaching out to extraterrestrial visitors in Denis Villeneuves high-concept highwire act of a film
Denis Villeneuves sci-fi contact drama is dreamy, freaky, audacious. It skirts the edge of absurdity, as anything like this must, but manages to keep clear, and it includes a big flourish in the manner of early films by M Night Shyamalan, which adroitly finesses the narrative issue of what exactly to do with a movie about aliens showing up on Earth.
I have been agnostic about this kind of movie recently, after the overwrought disappointments of Christopher Nolans Interstellar and Jeff Nicholss Midnight Special. But Villeneuves Arrival is both heartfelt and very entertaining.
As is now expected with this kind of film, the protagonist is a flustered, bewildered civilian with special expertise, brusquely pressed into service by the military, which has got the spacecraft surrounded in the short term.
Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, a professor of comparative linguistics with nothing and no one in her life but her work. But as it happens, Dr Banks was once seconded as a military adviser to translate a video of insurgents speaking Farsi. So when a dozen giant spaceships land in 12 different locations on Earth (including Devon sadly there no scenes there), each looking like a bisected rugby ball standing on end, a bunch of army guys led by Col Weber (Forest Whitaker) show up on Louises doorstep, demanding she come with them to help translate what the aliens are saying. Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of deep structure in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help Americas military-intelligence complex.
At any rate, Louises liaison is the flirtatious Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a military scientist who, in a stereotypical and fallacious way, equates his masculinity with science and affects to despise what he sees as the softer discipline of linguistics. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Halpern, the glowering CIA chief. But unbeknown to them, there is a secret tragedy in Louises life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful but illuminating echoes in her mind.
If a lion could speak, said Wittgenstein, we would not understand him. Does the same go for aliens? Spielberg solved this issue elegantly in Close Encounters of the Third Kind by making the form of communication a five-note musical phrase, ending questioningly on the dominant. Villeneuves solution is more literal. The aliens have a code which a little preposterously Louise finds herself more or less able to crack, with the crowdsourced expertise of the other 11 human-contact teams around the globe. But it is her human intuition, vulnerability and spontaneity that finally enable her to reach out to the visitors.
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