Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places—
what are human beings, that you think of them;
mere mortals, that you care for them?
“Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children!
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
Luke 2:10 (KJV)
He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying,
“If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!
Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film is both one of the best films of 2016 and one of the best science fiction films to come along in a while. With its theme of first contact between humans and extra-terrestrials, it is almost as good as Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and far superior to Independence. The latter, with its scenes of evil aliens destroying iconic buildings, is for kids who enjoy kicking over sand castles at the beach, whereas the new film is for adults who want not just entertainment from a film but also some food for thought. Scriptwriter Eric Heisserer has adapted Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story, the Nebula Award-winning “Story of Your Life,” into a film that will appeal to peacemakers seeking greater understanding among peoples and nations.
The story begins and ends with scenes from the modernistic lakeside home of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted professor of linguistics who a couple of years earlier had helped the CIA translate an important ISIS document written in Farsi. Here and throughout the film we see flashbacks of her and her deceased daughter Hannah interacting as she reflects upon her loss. She also is separated from her husband for reasons unknown. At first we barely hear Louise quietly say, “There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.” By “they” she means 12 black 1500-foot-long space ships shaped like an elongated egg that has been cut in half. So absorbed is she in her work, perhaps as a means of coping with Hannah’s death by cancer, that she arrives at her lecture room unaware that all the TV and cable channels are filled with reports of the alien spaceships that are hovering close to the ground at 12 seemingly random places around the world, the chief ones being China, Pakistan, Russia, and the U.S.A. When she takes note of the paucity of students in attendance, one of them alerts her to what is happening. On a screen, she sees the huge ships hovering close to the ground. Their black color and towering height might remind you of the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
One night soon the roar of a helicopter disrupts the placidness of the lake community. It has landed on her lawn, disgorging Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who asks that she accompany him to a base set up in Montana where one of the space ships is hovering. Because of her expertise in linguistics and her still intact security clearance from her past service, the CIA is requesting her help in the attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrials. The question being anxiously asked, here and in the 11 other nations visited by the aliens, is, “What is your purpose?” The news reports show throngs in some countries rioting and stock markets nosediving because of fear.
When Louise arrives at the base camp she learns that teams from all 12 visited nations are linked by TV so that they can share their thus far meager information about the aliens. She is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). Suiting up in orange hazmat gear, they enter a port that opens every 18 hours in the bottom of the ship. Because of low gravity inside the tunnel, they are able almost to float up to the top, where they enter a chamber wherein a huge window reveals to them two aliens emerging from the mists on the other side. The towering creatures look like a form of octopus or squid, 7 spindly limbs hanging from large fist-like bodies. During the attempts to communicate, one of them reaches out to the partition, the end of his tentacle splaying into a seven-pointed star that squid-like emits an inky substance onto the partition. This forms a circle with various squiggles and protrusions—a word?
Louise herself has approached the partition holding a sign reading “Human.” Her next sign, as well as one held by Ian, spells out their names. The military, of course, are anxious for quick progress, but Louise tells them that patience is required. “Every language we learn gives us a new/different way of perceive the world,” she says. Sensing that their suits are a barrier, and that the atmosphere is breathable, Louise removes her bio-hazard suit. Even though over their intercoms they can hear the worried Colonel telling them not to, Ian quickly follows. Both obviously believe this a must, despite the risk.
At first the 12 video-connected teams are able to help with Louise’s work so that she makes progress in understanding the alien’s language. But there are important ambiguities, most notably in the word that could be translated as “Weapon” or “Tool.” Anybody who has learned a foreign tongue has encountered this, discovering that often it is the context that determines the meaning. Thanks to TV and the Internet, paranoia is spreading around the world. An alarmed religious cult in North Dakota commits mass suicide. In one scene, a Rush Limbaugh-like talk show host spews out his fear, urging the military to attack the ship before it attacks us. China drops out of the network, followed by Russia, and, soon, all of the other 11 nations have severed their connections. General Shang (Tzi Ma), head of the Chinese military announces that he is preparing to lead an attack before the aliens attack his country. Thus an urgency descends upon Louise and Ian, with them soon having to plead with CIA Agent Halpern not to evacuate the camp so that the military can roll in and mount an attack. Shades of The Day the Earth Stood Still! Louise is soon taking a risk that makes her shedding her hazmat suit child’s play. And yet the pair maintain their scientific training, keeping calm as they tackle the complex task of trying to understand and be understood. They even evince a small measure of humor by referring to the two extra-terrestrials as “Abbot and Costello”—perhaps because of the duo’s famous skit on misunderstanding words, “Who’s on First”?
It is good to see Amy Adams play as strong a character as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity or Jody Foster’s in Contact. All three women have suffered deeply, and each has been sensitized by that loss to become more effective and tough in pushing ahead in a male-dominated world. I am not sure that I understand the film’s assertion that learning the alien’s language can change our brains so much that we can control, or bend, time, but it is intriguing to think about the concept. The film’s scene of Louise and Gen. Shang near the conclusion is a heartening one, but a bit incomprehensible to me. (I want to see the film again to catch some of the dialogue that I had difficulty hearing–hence I might be revising this section of my review soon.) The film offers hope that maybe women are at last coming into their own in Hollywood—the amiable Jeremy Renner’s role is reduced to that of Louise’s side-kick, long the fate of many a talented female in hundreds of adventure movies.
In director Denis Villeneuve’s two previous films that I have reviewed, the Middle Eastern-set Incendies and America and Mexico-set Sicario, the dark side of humanity is exposed—sectarian hatred and the resultant deaths that bring on even more due to vengeance in the first, and greed, lust, and murder in the drug film. Although the dark side appears in the form of fear and the willingness to resort to violence for self-preservation, the director/co-writer dwells more on the positive side of humanity, as exemplified in Louise and Ian. This is a far more positive film than the two earlier ones.
The theme of fear is deftly handled, along with the assertion that calmness and patience are needed to combat it, lest we do foolish things. This is a message we certainly need today, so I hope the film garners as large an audience as the escapist Doctor Strange has. Throughout the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures the phrase “Fear not…” is spoken by God, an angel, or authority figure. A basic human emotion (see the animated Inside Out), it is essential for self-preservation, but can also, when not controlled, lead to terrible results, as almost happens in Arrival. From the story of Abraham and Sarah on to that of Jesus of Nazareth, fearful humans have been assured that fear can be conquered, perhaps for Christians the best-known quotation being in 1st John, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Louise, whether religious or not, understands this, as we see from the moment she takes off her hazmat suit, through her struggle with military superiors, to her act of rebellion which came close to ending her life. What a good example she sets for a fearful world, and thus what a good message this new film brings to us.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.