July 23, 2019

Popcorn: “Arrival”

Quite a Trip

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic


You know how sometimes between sleep and consciousness you can tell the future? Well, good for you if you can; it doesn’t happen to me…not anymore. I’ve been stuck in this reality mode since the 1960s ended. But, just in case you tune in, Dr. Leary, there’s a fascinating variant of that “Twilight Zone”-like mind trip in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” a tale of alien visitation with a tricky twist. It’s the surprise answer to the brainteaser it never asks.

Otherwise, this rather solemn adventure, astutely crafted with the scientific method if not the élan that was evinced in “The Andromeda Strain” (1971), is your typical saga of outer space folk dropping in on us. They come, they see, and now we have two hours to figure out what they want. Suffice it to note, it’s not our sushi. Expect the usual array of world reaction, from out and out reactionary aggression to peaceful, hopeful and academically curious hospitableness. Since the film was made before the presidential election, figure us for the politer take, at least initially.


I probably won’t ruin it for you if I inform that these alien callers, soon referred to as the Heptapods, are of the octopus persuasion as opposed to the more fashionable, humanoid forms with those giant epaulets and virtual reality sunglasses on their big heads. I’m sure at least a few biologists could make a case for why writers of such literary fare are correct in assuming that some members of our universal brotherhood would evolve into cephalopods. In this case, of course, subtract one of the sucker-bearing tentacles. Not oct, these guys are hep.


And of course they’re real, real smart. You don’t come all cross the Milky Way from gosh knows where if you haven’t at least minored in astrophysics. Besides, what kind of a story would it be if they were poorly educated? I guess then the only possible plot would be about our opposing political parties trying to proselytize them. But nope, odds are these dudes know the score and, assuming they’re not here to harvest us, world-renowned linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, hopes to learn something from them… maybe even the secret of life.


Portrayed with a slightly swoony dreaminess by Amy Adams, she’s the cat’s pajamas when it comes to studying other tongues. In fact, she’s taken communication to levels heretofore unthought of, and, in the dramatic hyperbole that attends government enlistment in times of national emergency, that’s precisely why Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber parks his helicopter on her scenic, waterfront lawn. It’s all pretty cool. Sure, she’s tops in her field and probably rich, but in Amy Adams’s thespic hands, she’s also our vicarious everywoman, called to duty.


Now, don’t be in a hurry once she gets to the tent-town army compound in Montana where the aliens’ ovoid spaceship has decided to levitate about thirty feet off the ground. This isn’t going to be easy. You see, as the philologist soon learns, the aliens’ communication transcends mere conversation, but rather, encompasses the whole of their being. So it’s quite intriguing when smart Dr. Banks, soon the team’s tacit prom queen, starts getting hip to the Heptapods.


It bears noting that our heroine manages these inroads despite being hassled by the more militaristic sorts in the group who disdain improvisation and optimism. Yep, these gung-ho types will do it every time…itch for their guns whenever things gets a little dicey. Thankfully, the professor has the albeit tentative support of Colonel Weber as well as the growing admiration and confidence of fellow genius and scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.


Meanwhile, afraid that China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) will blow up the spaceship that landed in his neck of the woods and thereby beat us to the offensive, it’s all that Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA agent Halpern can do to keep from ordering Armageddon. Tick, tick, tick, gotta figure out what the aliens’ arrival bodes. But there’s something else going on, too, and somewhere among its curious, practically inscrutable clues, there just may be the key to the puzzle Dr. Banks must solve.


Psst: Those flashbacks and flash-forwards aren’t exactly what we think they are. Odder yet, because there is an intricately woven method to the artfully deceptive scenario, what we assume is the plot is actually just the window dressing. The real storyline, replete with metaphor and moral maxims, glides along imperceptibly, just behind the film’s gauzy curtain, waiting for us to discover it.


Problem is, I was so busy trying to figure out what the aliens wanted that I didn’t realize I was supposed to anticipate this space age version of the O. Henry ending. Maybe you’ll do better. If that challenge seems enticing, “Arrival” should be your next movie destination.

“Arrival,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Denis Villeneuve and stars Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. Running time: 116 minutes



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