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New Release Review - ARRIVAL

A linguistics professor is tasked with deciphering the language of an alien race.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker



We're living in something of a golden age for sci-fi dramas whose protagonists are scientists and intellectuals determined to think rather than blast their way through obstacles, and Amy Adams' linguist is perhaps the most human of them all.



Many things divide us as humans. Our race divides us. Our class divides us. Our religion, or lack of, divides us. But no element is quite as divisive, and indeed unifying, as language. A middle class white Muslim and a working class black Christian have more chance of forming a bond than two white middle class atheists who speak different languages. If you're a native English speaker you've no doubt found yourself forming short term alliances with Americans, Australians, Brits etc while visiting a foreign land, for no good reason other than the ability to communicate with one another. Should an alien race ever arrive on our planet we'll need to quickly figure out their intentions towards us, but how will we manage this if we can't communicate with them?



That's the premise of Arrival, the latest from Denis Villeneuve, who may be the most interesting filmmaker managing to eke out a mainstream career today. When 12 large alien craft - resembling a cross between the monolith of Kubrick's 2001 and a giant dissected Cadbury's Creme Egg - appear over seemingly arbitrary points across the globe, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is hired by the US military to decipher the guttural language of the Octopus like residents of a craft stationed over Montana (with their spindly legs they look a lot like the symbolic giant spider of Villeneuve's Enemy).

This seems like a huge ask at first, but Adams' Banks instills confidence that she's up to the task. We're living in something of a golden age for sci-fi dramas whose protagonists are scientists and intellectuals determined to think rather than blast their way through obstacles - Interstellar, The Martian, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, Japan's reboot of their national franchise, Shin Godzilla (ironically, Star Trek, once the banner franchise of thoughtful sci-fi, has now been reduced to a series of dumb action movies) - and Banks is perhaps the most human of them all. Like Pixar's Up, Arrival opens with a heart-breaking montage detailing a personal loss, an incident which frequent brief flashbacks suggest will play a Shyamalan-esque role in Banks' cracking of this very unique code.



As with Shin Godzilla, Arrival features a race against time to find a scientific solution before a potentially disastrous military one is deployed. But here it's the Americans who are the thoughtful and patient pacifists, with the threat coming from Asia in the form of a gung-ho Chinese general threatening to blast his local craft out of the sky.

As a native of bilingual Quebec, Villeneuve is perhaps more qualified than most to tell this particular story, and it threads similar territory to Bruce McDonald's 2008 Canadian zombie movie Pontypool, another work that employed genre trappings to explore the power of language, and Mia Hansen-Love's Eden, which used Europe's '90s embracing of dance music as a means to investigate linguistics. But what Villeneuve brings most importantly of all is his studied, patient approach to filmmaking, free from shaky-cam and quick cuts. If Michael Bay is the militaristic Chinese general in this metaphor, Villeneuve is the composed scientist. He's aided by classy visuals from cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, A Most Violent Year) and another subtle yet effective score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario).



As with Interstellar and The Martian, Arrival is an unashamed tribute to humanity at its best. As Banks studiously deciphers the language of the alien visitors, we're reminded of how we managed as a species to crack many alien languages of our own in the development of our world; think of the first time Japanese and English speakers encountered one another and what a challenge to communication that must have raised. But it's also an ongoing scenario most of us will face in our life in the raising of a child, somehow finding a means of teaching our complex language to a small creature that might just as well have come from outer space as a human womb for all its familiarity with verbal communication. We humans are pretty great. We need more movies like Arrival to remind us of this.

Arrival is in cinemas November 10th.






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