Saturday, November 26, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Arrival

Arrival was written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Heisserer is a very uneven screenwriter, who previously penned the awful A Nightmare On Elm Street remake (the one that turned Freddie Krueger into an outright pedophile), Final Destination 5 (eh, OK), The Thing remake (ugh), Hours (didn't see it) and Lights Out (meh). Wow. That is a spectacularly unimpressive body of work. How the hell did a guy with a resume like that manage to pump out a thoughtful and intelligent hard sci-fi movie like this? I guess one can't strike out every time at bat. I wouldn't be surprised though if some day, when Eric Heisserer is old and gray, a large puff or brimstone will appear before him and Satan will lean out and say, "Did you think I'd never come to collect on our bargain?"

Villeneuve previously directed Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario.

Arrival is based on the book Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang. It should not be confused with The Arrival, the 1996 scifi opus starring Charlie Sheen (!).

I like science-fantasy movies like Star Wars and Guardians Of The Galaxy just fine, but I've always liked hard scifil films even more. 
Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain and more recently The Martian. Films that are full of ideas and involve actual science. Stories that make you think, instead of sitting there like a lump, passively absorbing whatever flashes across the screen. 

Unfortunately the vast majority of the movie-going public doesn't want to think they just want to see amazing visuals and watch CGI buildings explode. That's why it's all the more amazing when a thoughtful scifil movie like Arrival finds its way into the cineplex these days.

Predictably, the film is being whupped at the box office, by both Doctor Strange ($600 million so far) and, god help us, Trolls ($260 million). Heck, even Boo! A Madea Halloween out-grossed Arrival during its brief run, racking up an astonishing $72 million!

Meanwhile, poor Arrival's only manged to gross an anemic $53 million worldwide against it's $43 million budget. Due to marketing and other costs, movies generally need to make twice their production cost before they begin showing a profit. Arrival's gonna have an uphill climb just to break even.

Sadly, this doesn't surprise me. 
I'm sure most of the audience was expecting Arrival to be a clone of Independence Day, only to be bitterly disappointed when it turned out to be a thoughtful, slow-moving film about language and our perception of time. In fact as I was leaving the theater, I overheard at least two different groups complaining that Arrival was "stupid" and that they should have seen Doctor Strange instead.

Sigh...

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD! THIS IS A FILM THAT'S BEST EXPERIENCED WITH NO PREVIOUS KNOWLEDGE OF ITS PLOT! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The Plot:
As the film opens, we see linguistic professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) as she recalls bittersweet memories of her late daughter, who died as a teen. Smells like foreshadowing to me! Later that morning, Louise drives to class and is puzzled to find it practically deserted. At a student's request she turns on the TV and is shocked to see new reports of an alien invasion.

It seems twelve massive alien "shells" have suddenly appeared and are hovering a few feet above seemingly random spots across Earth. No one knows just why the aliens are here or what they want, which causes a worldwide panic. U.S. Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) arrives at Louise's house in the middle of the night, claiming the government needs her translation skills to help decipher the aliens' language.

Louise is flown to Montana, where one of the alien shells is hovering. The army's set up a large temporary headquarters near the "landing" site. Louise is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), and after a brief indoctrination, they're dressed in hazmat suits and taken to the meet the "visitors." Every eighteen hours, a hatch opens in the bottom of each of the shells. Louise, Ian, Col. Weber and a few other soldiers are scissor-lifted into the shell.

Inside, Louise sees a wide rectangular chamber with a glass wall at the end. She approaches the glass, and two of the aliens emerge from their cloudy atmosphere so she can get a good look at them. They vaguely resembling large floating squids with seven tentacles. She tries to communicate with them, but their language is composed of incomprehensible squeals and moans hat a human voice could never reproduce. Later back at the base, Louise is flustered by the encounter.

The next day, Louise and the others return to the ship. She realizes they're never going to get anywhere while she's wearing a bulky hazmat suit, so she peels it off, marches up to the glass and writes "human" on a dry erase board. One of the aliens squirts an inky substance into its atmosphere, which forms a lumpy ring. Louise correctly guesses this it the alien's "written" language.

Ian dubs the aliens "Heptapods" due to their seven arm symmetry, and names the two they're working with "Abbott" and "Costello" (ask your grandparents, kids). The Heptapod's writing system is nearly impossible to comprehend, as each little flourish on the circular symbols relates to and affects all the others. Through the power of a montage, Louise and the aliens slowly learn one another's written language. She even writes an app allowing her to type out sentences in Heptapodese!

Louise translates one of the Heptapod's messages as "Offer weapon." Naturally this alarms the nations of the world, destabilizing the already fragile peace. The leader of China's army, General Shang, panics and threatens military action against the Heptapods. Panic grips the populace and seeps into the army base, as many of the soldiers become suspicious of the Heptapods' motives. Louise tries to tell Col. Weber and the others that "weapon" could also mean "tool," but her explanation falls on deaf ears.

Meanwhile Louise begins dreaming about her late daughter, as well as the aliens. Ian wonders if trying to understand and think in the Heptapod language is beginning to affect her brain.

The next day a group of soldiers somehow sneak a bomb into the chamber of the Heptapod ship. Louise and Ian enter and talk with Abbot and Costello. The aliens seem agitated as they pound on the glass, as if they're trying to tell the humans something. They write a complicated "sentence" with hundreds of circular symbols, then suddenly fly away from the glass. The Heptapods use some sort of invisible force to shove Louise and Ian out of the chamber a split second before the bomb explodes.

Louise is knocked out, and when she wakes, the Heptapod shell is now inaccessible, floating high in the air. Col. Weber has been ordered to evacuate the Montana base. China has their weapons aimed at their Heptapod ship, and the other nations follow suit. War and destruction seem inevitable.

Ian somehow translates part of the complicated message, saying it has something to do with the concept of time. He says Abbott and Costello only gave Louise one twelfth of the message. To translate it fully, they'll have to get the remaining pieces from the other eleven nations. Since none of the countries are speaking to each other, that seems unlikely.

Louise rushes out and stands under the ship. It sends down a small pod that takes her inside. She's brought into the Heptapods' atmosphere, which apparently isn't poisonous to humans. Costello tells her that Abbott was injured by the bomb and is dying. He helps her realize that understanding the Heptapods' language unlocks something in the speaker's brain, allowing them to experience the past, present and future all at once. Costello tells Louise the reason they came to Earth is to give us their language and save us, because they've foreseen that three thousand years from now, we'll save them from... something.

Louise realizes the Heptapod language has already altered her perception, and she no longer sees time linearly. It turns out her late daughter hasn't even been born yet, and the "memories" she has of her are actually flash-forwards (!). Woahhhh... this movie just blew my mind, man.


Louise returns to the camp and has another flash-forward, in which General Shang thanks her for changing his mind about firing on the Heptapods' ship. She asks him how she did this, and he says she called his private number (!) and repeated his late wife's last words to him.

Louise is then pursued by various base personnel for... reasons. I think maybe they're afraid she's been compromised by the aliens? She steals a satellite phone and miraculously gets through to General Shang in the present. Right before the soldiers open fire on her, she relays her message to Shang. He's so flustered and amazed by what she tells him that he orders the Chinese military to stand down. Following China's lead, the other nations back off as well, and the various countries start working together again, sharing all their info with one another.

The aliens decide they've caused enough trouble for humanity, and the twelve shells simply fade away.

As they're dismantling the Montana base, Ian tells Louise he loves her. She sees a future vision in which he asks her if she wants to make a baby. Despite already knowing the tragic fate of her daughter, she says yes.

Thoughts: 

• Oddly enough, I don't have a lot to say about this movie. It's pretty darned good and I liked it a lot. That means this review's gonna be pretty short.

See, when I hate a movie, I can work up a pretty good head of steam and write 100,000 words ripping it apart. But when a movie's actually good, well... there are only so many ways to say, "It's great!"

This is the irony of movie reviews, I guess. The worse the movie, the more spirited and interesting the review, while good films just get a pat on the head.

• Director Denis Villeneuve insisted that the movie's use of linguistics and linguistic science was as accurate as possible.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer also created a fully functioning written language for the Heptapods to use in the film. They created a list of over a hundred different circular "logograms," seventy nine of which are seen in the film.

• I could easily accept Amy Adams as a professor of linguistics. Unfortunately I didn't for one minute buy Jeremy Renner as a theoretical physicist. Renner seems much too "blue collar" to play a brainy scientist. That isn't necessarily a criticism of his acting talent; he was just miscast. 

• At no time in the film do any of the Heptapods or their ships ever actually touch the Earth. The aliens never leave their ships, which all hover just a few feet above the surface.

• Kudos to the design team for the look of the Heptapods. It was nice to finally see extraterrestrials that actually looked alien, instead of like humanoids with wrinkly foreheads.

• The movie bases a big chunk of its plot on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis was created back in 1929, and there are two versions: "strong" and "weak."

The strong version states that all human thought, perceptions and actions are bound by the restraints of language. In other words an English speaker perceives the world much differently than someone who uses Mandarin. If a person learns a new language, then new areas of the brain are opened up and they begin thinking in new ways.

The weak version of the hypothesis says that language plays a much, much smaller role in shaping our minds.

Most modern linguists have discounted the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, citing that if it was true, instruction manuals and works of fiction would be impossible to translate from one language to another.

Unfortunately Arrival heavily utilizes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as simply learning the Heptapods' language causes Louise to begin experiencing time non-linearly. Given the fact that most scientists have thoroughly discredited the theory, this puts the entire plot of the film in serious doubt.

• The 2009 Torchwood miniseries Children Of Earth featured an invasion by an advanced race of aliens called the 456, who demanded the world hand over ten percent of the planet's children to them or else. 

The 456 enclosed themselves in a special glass chamber that was filled with their toxic atmosphere. Earth representatives met with the aliens by standing in front of the glass wall of their chamber.

The scenes of Louise and Ian meeting the Heptapods in Arrival looked amazingly similar to Children Of Earth. Wait, did I say similar? I meant EXACTLY like it.

This isn't necessarily a case of plagiarism. It could be that there are only so many ways to film humans standing in front of a smoky glass box full of aliens.

• What was up with Ian's odd narration? Halfway through the movie, he suddenly begins infodumping the plot to us, telling how Louise made a breakthrough that let her decipher the alien pictograms.

Hey guys, it's a movie. You're supposed to show, not tell.

I have a feeling the narration was a studio mandate. I'm betting a nervous studio executive watched a rough cut of the film, and was worried that the dimmer members of the audience wouldn't be able to figure out what was happening, and insisted on spelling it out for them.

 Arrival kind of skates over the specifics of exactly how Louise finally cracks the Heptapods' language. 

One minute she's commenting that their circular sentence structure baffles any attempt to decipher it, then a couple scenes later she's using a Heptapod language app on her IPad, tapping out sentences with ease.

 This movie contains a perfect example of what I call The Fantastic Four Effect.

See, back in the awful 2005 Fantastic Four movie, there's a scene in which the Thing sits brooding on the Brooklyn Bridge. He sees a man about to commit suicide and saves him, but accidentally causes a huge traffic pileup that escalates into a full blown disaster. The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl and the Human Torch then spring into action, each using their powers to save the city. The media dubs the team the Fantastic Four as the public celebrates them.

What no one seems to realize is the Fantastic Four became famous while cleaning up the huge mess they created. There wouldn't have been a disaster if not for them.

And so it is in Arrival. The Heptapods tell Louise they came to Earth to save humanity, because they've foreseen that three thousand years from now, humanity will somehow save them.

But we wouldn't have needed saving if they hadn't come here and freaked everyone the hell out by ominously hanging their ships over our heads. We were getting along just fine before they showed up and destabilized our society.

 These days many films count on the Chinese box office for a significant portion of their worldwide gross. In fact some studios are beginning to tailor their films to appeal to Chinese audiences.

I have a feeling Arrival probably won't be playing there. Sure, General Shang ends up saving the day, but China's the first country to threaten to destroy the alien ships. That's probably not gonna play well in the Middle Kingdom.

Arrival is a rare sight at the cineplex these days— a well-written, thoughtful hard scifi movie that contains ideas and concepts instead of explosions and CGI disaster porn. Better hurry and see it before it's nudged out of the theater by the holiday blockbusters. I give it an A-.

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