What would it be like to have no beginning, middle, or end? What language might support a non-linear way of relating to the world? Would living without a goal be ecstatically supported? Would grief be eradicated, or at least made easier to bear?
Philosophically, these ideas are just brushed once across the canvas of Director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-film “Arrival”. What is done is that we are toyed with flash-forwards instead of flashbacks. It is tricky, inventive and confusing. We hear our protagonist say, “Memory is a strange thing. We Are bound by time and its order.” Then we see hazy dream-like images: a baby, a small girl. We hear the phrase, ” Come back to me.” The viewer is set up to think we are in a flashback: that Prof. Banks has lost her daughter to illness is implied. We again hear a voice over: “I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings, or in moments that design your life.”
Amy Adams is perfect as Dr. Louise Banks. Her facial structure easily bends to curiosity, apprehension, and awe. Unlike Adam’s role in ” Nocturnal Animals”, we can see her thinking. She is a linguist of the highest calibre. Her inductive reasoning skills are fun to watch; and, her controlled emotional responses to both her daughter’s illness, her divorce, and her mother’s telephone calls are universally relatable. Picking her battles wisely, she can hold her own politically and in the classroom.
We were told that Louise’s first husband was a scientist. We think she lost a daughter, Hannah. When physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) falls in love with Louise’s bravery, brains, and compassion, we think she has a chance to start over. Then, we come to understand that Hannah will be their child.
The script written by Eric Hesserer is based on one of Chinese-American sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 short stories. The extraterrestials are tentacled octopi. They use inkblot images to converse. They arrive in huge, spherical, gray eggs, composition unknown. Confusion over translations “offer tool” or “use weapon” causes much of the world tension. A renown linguist is needed to ask why they have come. Besides, “language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
“Arrival” ‘s first forty minutes are well-paced and engrossing: clouds whip and cellos sound. The mid-section lags and feels repetitive. The script does not lead us anywhere but to the maxim that the world needs to work together in the interest of humanity. The aliens have delivered twelve puzzle pieces to countries around the globe: China, Somalia, Russia and Pakistan are singled out for their contributions and world view. The United States and Russia are diplomatically drawn, too.
Besides the superb acting of an oft pony-tailed Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker add something special to the cast. Renner, a former make-up artist and singer, now actor and producer, starred in “The Hurt Locker”. Here he both charms, is charmed and vomits on camera. Whitaker, stellar in “The Crying Game” and “The Last King of Scotland”, knows how to mobilize his team.
Enjoy all the circular logograms, the non-linear typography,and the way another civilization prepares for the next 3,000 years by gifting its language.