Alien as a Second Language

Arrival posterHow would you react if a dozen alien ships snuck through the atmosphere and stopped just shy of an official landing? Some might think they’re here to observe. Others might think they plan to attack. And some botanists might see the colossal seed-like ships dangling just above the soil as provocative taunting. Whichever opinion you relate to, let’s hope it’s friendly with the side that asks the investigative questions, and not the side that cries “apocalypse” and loots TVs.

Movies have officially ditched the spinning newspaper and moved to news anchors dictating the headlines. On this partly cloudy day, they announce that twelve gargantuan alien pods are hovering delicately over a variety of locations across the globe. The pods don’t move, no passengers disembark, no land is disturbed, yet planet Earth flips its shirts all the same. Professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), agrees that – just for today – her class may go home early. Unlike the rest of the planet, the news doesn’t really affect Louise. She’s an uninvolved observer until the U.S. military requests her assistance. After all, if Louise can translate Sanskrit, alien Womwom should be easy. She and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical Arrival Amy Adams introductionphysicist, try to decipher the aliens’ lingo while eleven other international teams attempt the same. Civilians, meanwhile, are left in the dark and thus continue to fear the worst/loot at will. Louise and Ian have an incomparable amount of work to do as quickly as possible, before some country snaps and starts firing the nukes.

Arrival feels complete. You know how some films have wowrifically good action or great story but there’s always something missing? Not this time. Arrival’s production team clearly took their time and thought it all through. I can picture every part of this film, from casting to clothing, being discussed around a boardroom table. It just comes together. Patiently. That feeling of smooth persistence is reflected in the plot and the humbling task facing Louise and Ian. It’s not an easy job to translate the aliens’ Arrival Rorschach blotsRorschach blots into a comprehensible, communicable language. And what if the alien message turns out to be, “Deliver us your human sacrifices”? Calm, intelligent, and direct, Louise forces her team to take their time and do it right, because in this situation being wrong is a greater risk than being slow.

And we all must hail the linguists! Hollywood is used to praising mathematical geniuses, business tycoons, and doctors with great hair, but it’s not often you get to see a linguist work their magic. It’s math with syllables – or, witchcraft. While, to me, the ink blots at the end of Arrival look a lot like the ink blots at the beginning of Arrival, the point is that Louise makes progress and eventually builds a foundation of understanding. It’s not long before the theoretical physicist puts down his calculator and devotes his full time to the linguist’s approach. This story angle feels like something new, and it’s very refreshing.Arrival Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

Equally as refreshing is the smooth and steady cinematography. My eyes may have been wrenched open for two straight hours, but I still got a sense of cool delicacy – except for anything that happens inside a military base. I assume this was done on purpose. But yada yada I can praise the obvious all day long; all I really want to do is talk about sound. You know those Oscars for sound editing and sound mixing?  Probably not – they’re usually code for “bathroom break”. Well this year, Arrival is a hot contender. Yes the movie is visually beautiful, but it’s also an adventure for your earbuds. Sound is carefully positioned to cue memories, provoke thought, and flower ideas. Even something little or subtle can ripple through Arrival like a deep-water tsunami. These sounds overlap and run away with their own story, building Arrival shipalongside Louise, Ian, and the aliens. It’s like a rainbow for my ears.

Smooth as it is, Arrival isn’t without moments of tension and fear. They break the general tone of forced calm that we feel from Louise’s perspective. Closer to the conclusion, I did feel like some ends wrapped up too easily, like one answer fit all the questions. While this left something to mull over after the credits, it felt short of a satisfying reward worthy of Louise and Ian’s hard work. This is really my only criticism. And, maybe, that the soundtrack was a little too digital sound board. Arrival is an alien invasion wrapped up in an alphabet lesson. Like the Teletubbies. There may be bigger action movies or more nostalgic flicks playing right now, but you won’t regret opening up a little time for Arrival. 9/10.

“Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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