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Arrival - Epically excellent science fiction

Having seen more of these sort of movies than I can count, after seeing Arrival, I was trying to recall and categorize all of the alien contact films I have ever seen, but the number was getting daunting. The simplest way to categorize them is whether the extraterrestrial beings are invading or just saying hello. The grand daddy of them all was War of the Worlds, which was released in 1897 by H. G. Wells and has been the basis for a famous radio broadcast, as well as two movies with the same name and uncountable other evil-alien movies. The movie archetype for movies with benign aliens is the still excellent The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in which an impeccably proper English speaking alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), brings hope to earth and is greeted with suspicion and violence. Several cohorts of kids have now grown up with the lovable ET and a few more thoughtful adults have enjoyed the aliens in Contact. On the whole, however, most alien contacts seem to mainly be the fodder for big battle scenes, heroic speeches and determined resistance, in the spirit of Independence Day or Battle: Los Angeles. We earthlings and especially we Americans like to think that a civilization can find us, travel interstellar distances, invade earth and still somehow be undone by plucky Americans who find a secret weapon at the last, desperate moment. The less naive realize that the conflict would be more akin to naked islanders sinking an aircraft carrier with a spear.

Thatís the quandary of Arrival. The film was directed by Denis Villaneuve, based on a book by Ted Chiang, with a screenplay by Chiang and Eric Heisserer. A group of smooth, huge, ellipsoidal space vessels arrive and take up static positions just above the ground in a dozen places around the earth. Thereís no obvious attempt at communication, but also no hostile acts, no ray gun massacres and no scoops shoveling up the earthlings to make fertilizer. Earthlings, however, are scared and the usual first response is to bring out the army in all of the effected parts of the world. The American government, trying to figure out how to communicate before they start shooting, contacts Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a prominent linguist and mother to a dead daughter. She is brought, under armed guard, to one of the vessel sites where she meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and army commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who is nominally in charge of the army unit that surrounds the vessel. Bankís task is to attempt to communicate with the aliens, who allow human visitors inside a part of their vessel periodically, and, to determine their intent. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, things are heating up. While aliens there have not done anything hostile, military trigger fingers are getting itchy and the possibility escalates that something awful is about to happen on a global basis. The outcome seems to hinge on whether Banks or any of the other similar ďtranslatorsĒ in other countries can assure nervous governments that the aliens are not intent on planet harvesting and whether the various countries will share what they are learning. For all of their advanced technology, the alien ďhexapodsĒ seem remarkably unprepared for the contact, lacking anything comparable to Klaatu, who can put us at ease.

The outcome of this standoff, whether it is actually a standoff, and what the intent of the aliens is, takes us into a lengthy and suspenseful voyage. The nature of time, and how it effects our experience of the universe also is part of the drama. Even though the aliens are trying to communicate with us, itís not certain whether itís OK or whether we should look back to the classic Twilight Zone episode ďTo Serve ManĒ and realize that the reference to serving could be to help or as in, serving us on a dinner plate. Language is everything and neither side understands the other.

Arrival is one of the more intelligent sci-fi movies I have seen in a while. Itís not a film about blaster action and big speeches, but about whether to make the speeches and activate the blasters. The aliens might just want our planet, or they may be bringing us something that makes our current technology and view of physical reality look like those of a squirrel. As movies of this genre go, Arrival is slow moving, sometimes almost meditative and takes its time taking us where itís going. It owes some of its pace and inscrutability to The Tree of Life. Itís not really an easy movie and definitely will merit a second viewing. The end is an enigma. Direction by Villaneuve is spot-on. The biggest role is Amy Adamsí character Louise Banks. Sheís basically the Amy Adams we have seen before, but, as a character, does an excellent job in a low-key role, trying to figure out what this all means before itís too late. Jeremy Renner does a good job as an ordinary guy/physicist, as does Forest Whitaker as the no-nonsense army commander, trying to understand whatís going on without starting a war, but itís mostly Adamsí movie. Other roles are mainly support characters. The special effects are quite good without resorting to the sort of War of the Worlds megalomania that these movies often have. The story is about plot and dialog, not giant robots.

If youíre wondering whether this is a recommendation, it definitely is. If youíre looking for a big battle, however, stay home. If you enjoy smart science fiction that might even give you a larger view of the possibilities inherent in the universe, you will enjoy Arrival, which has more than a little in common with Contact. I definitely want to see it again. Arrival is currently sitting in an exalted 8.5 on IMDB, with critics at 93% on Flixter from critics. Iím guessing that the lower 82% from audiences comes in part from the guys who wanted lots of alien blasting and patriotic speeches, but I also admit that itís not an easy movie. I was glad about that.