Arrival (2016) — Aliens want to talk talk

“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”

Justin’s rating: All the aliens who visit me only talk in skeeball metaphors

Justin’s review: Arrival certainly isn’t the first film to take a crack at initial contact with extraterrestrials, although it may be the most serious and real-feeling of the bunch. It simply asks a profound question — if aliens did show up on our doorstep, how would we communicate with them? — and explores that amid the rising stakes of international tension.

The language barrier, not to mention the vast differences of thought, presents a problem that a lot of scifi flicks hand wave away with universal translators, Babel fish, or aliens that learned English from watching Seinfeld reruns. A while back, I read an article talking about how the most realistic expectation for a first encounter interchange would be through mathematics rather than language.

One day, a dozen alien ships appear all over the globe, sending nations and populations everywhere into panic and frenzied speculation. Who are they? What do they want? Is this a prelude to an invasion, a cry for help, a transformation, or a tourist stop for intergalactic yuppies? When the “shells” toss out indecipherable noises, the US government figures that the communication barrier needs to be crossed. Thus, they bring in Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a smart but kind of emotionally distant linguist to see what she can do.

Even as Banks arrives at one of the alien ship sites, she seems to be trailing sadness behind her that deflects other strong emotions — excitement, fear, giddy curiosity — that you’d think a person would feel. The movie’s cinematography echoes this, being darker and more gloomy than you’d expect. But to her credit, Banks plugs away at trying to bridge the language gap and figure out what the aliens are trying to tell them.

While tonally Arrival is vastly separated from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there’s a common thread between the two. In both cases, the movies are arguably far more about the people who encounter the alien ships rather than the aliens themselves. Banks is struggling with thoughts of her deceased daughter, an event which casts a pall over her life and this job.

The slower pace of this movie is, at times, infuriating and engrossing. It’s trying to deliver the sketch of a doctoral thesis on language to a mass audience via the medium of tentacled aliens and smoky circles. Even if a bunch of these complicated concepts scoot over our heads, at least it’s interesting to watch and nod sagely to your movie viewing partner as if you got it.

I know a lot of people wet their pantaloons over Arrival, and while it’s a fine movie that’s certainly worth seeing once, I suspect that the subsequent acclaim is a mite bit overblown for what is, after all, a story that’s been well-tread in the past — but perhaps not so stylishly.

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