Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Movie Review -- "Arrival"

The science fiction film "Arrival" has been promoted as "a movie about alien visitors for people who don't like movies about alien visitors."  Put another way, it's a science fiction movie which connects on a human level (or, at least aspires to.)

Speaking as a writer of the paranormal genre, I hope for a time when science fiction gains not only the respect of the general public but a means of connection with people who may not be science-minded or given to flights of fancy.  Science fiction is largely dismissed as the realm of the outsider, the "geek," the "nerd", the "loser."  Largely because it offers no connection with human life and drama; only with dreams and speculations which connect mainly with our child-like wonder.  Something which (sadly) we're expected to grow out of.

But, "Arrival" is a science fiction film for adults.  (In fact, speaking as a Boston resident, it was the only science fiction film I can recall being run at Kendall Square, a cinema that generally runs only art films.)  The point of view character is a linguist named Louise Banks, played with a marvelously human combination of strength and vulnerability by Amy Adams.  She is a mother raising a daughter.  Years slip by in a heartbeat.  We see glimpses of the child telling her mother she loves her.  The teenager yelling at her mother that she hates her.  And, the heart-rending tragedy of the mother at her daughter's deathbed.  Life presented as a misty, dream-like vignette which introduces us to a character we care about.

And then, the familiar, the tragic, the human comes into direct contact with something outside human experience.  Extraterrestrial visitation.  Huge, enigmatic objects from space set down all over the world.  No one can guess at their intentions, but of course the world is on hair-trigger alert.  Each nation sets up a team of translators to approach the seemingly impossible task of learning to communicate with a non-human intelligence.  And, ironically, at the very time when the nations of humanity should be talking to each other and comparing notes, the nations instead stop talking to each other altogether.  Instead of a collaboration that unites the world, the first alien encounter becomes a race to see which nations can get the aliens to cough up superior weapons technology first.  Meanwhile, the radio and TV shock jocks are criticizing the American president for not making a show of military strength.  It's all sadly familiar.  A dark look at human nature.  The theme is of course communication, or the lack thereof.  And, finding a common point of reference.

But, the protagonist, Banks, is the redeeming face of humanity.  Her quiet strength and gentle but determined hunger for knowledge drives her to try to understand the incomprehensible.  She has an academic intellect combined with a mother's patience.  It seems almost with love that she tries to make herself understood by beings who are as opaque as they are fearsome.  Banks peers out with her big, questing eyes through a viewport at towering, dark beings who, shrouded in white mist resemble a cross between giant squid and uprooted tree trunks.  Their language looks like circular squiggles of the type a child would make with finger paints and a mother would pin to a refrigerator.  But, Banks must find a deeper meaning in them, all while managing her budding romance with a man on her linguistics team.

The action is slow, testing the audience's patience and attention, but it is the quiet melancholy of the human drama intermingling with the unknown and the looming threat of Armageddon that holds the audience.  The film is about understanding, patience and compassion overcoming fear and animal instinct, but it's also about learning to look at life from a completely unfamiliar perspective.  The alien concept of time, it turns out, is circular, rather than linear, as ours is.  Reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," this tale offers a holistic, circular view of life that not only manages to endure the tragedy of death and separation, but even to embrace it as a cosmic force that shapes us into who we are.  The ending (or, beginning?) is sad and sweet and brings the circle round in a strange and beautiful way.  Not a conventional happy ending, to be sure, but one that makes you think, which is what science fiction (good science fiction, that is) is supposed to do.  But, this one also makes you feel.

A story like "Arrival" proves science fiction can come of age as a respectable medium which bridges the gap between the child-like dreamer in all of us with the adult issues of daily life.  A story that directly connects the larger philosophical questions with life's accessible texture.  Here's hoping we see more of its kind.

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