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Take us to your so-called leaders

THE X-PAT FILES - Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star
Take us to your so-called leaders
Egg-shaped monoliths descend on Earth’s cities, causing panic and fear in Arrival.

Arrival, the sci-fi hit directed by Denis Villeneuve, opens with a mother’s loss. She’s struck by a life event that renders her world gray and muted (or maybe it’s just the cinematography of Bradford Young), and ponders her own story, her own memories. “I remember moments in the middle,” says Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor played by Amy Adams whose world changes again with the arrival of 12 large egg monoliths hovering close to earth across the globe. She’s enlisted by the US military to help initiate contact with the egg-shaped ships, just as world leaders are doing elsewhere in China, Russia, Japan, Australia, Pakistan, Venezuela and other places.

But talking to the new illegal aliens proves complicated. She teams up with theoretical physicist Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out what the arrivals’ intentions are. Louise believes language holds the key to civilization and progress; Ian says it’s science. But they appear better suited to unravel the mystery than the trigger-happy military men guarding the monoliths, the public driven to hysteria by the first proof of alien intelligence, or the world governments who grow suspicious and isolated from one another.

 Whether Arrival means to comment on our current geopolitical situation is open for debate. There’s a telling moment in the film when, one by one, a bank of TV screens hooked up to command centers around the world “disconnect” and go blank — a symbol of the dangers of not communicating or seeking dialogue. In an age where many governments and societies seem inclined to isolate themselves from the world and “foreigners” (Hello Brexit! Hello Trump! Hello Duterte!), Arrival takes a more Obama-friendly, liberal democratic view of human progress. Or maybe it’s a Gene Roddenberry-friendly, Star Trek view of human progress. You know: the idea that we can all get along as one human race, acquire new knowledge together and explore new worlds and civilizations, instead of building walls and closing borders. I know: it’s just science fiction. But still…

What Louise and Ian end up initiating is a crude system of teaching and learning one another’s language. They quickly find that the inhabitants of this spaceship — called heptapods due to the presence of seven limbs — communicate in spoken language as well as symbols (spread in clouds of squid-like ink). Their task is to help translate these symbols accurately. For miscommunication can lead to a lot of pain and suffering, as Yoda has pointed out.

Best not reveal too much more about Arrival, but it does stir up memories of other classic sci-fi films, including Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which posits that musical tones might serve as a universal language) and the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (no, not the wretched Keanu Reeves remake, please). That 1951 film dealt with the arrival of a foreign presence on the National Mall of Washington, DC — and they weren’t Trump supporters. They were aliens (led by well-groomed English-speaking Klaatu) who wished to help give mankind a leg up, technology-wise. Diseases could be eliminated, weapons rendered unnecessary, true peace and understanding would finally rule the erratic human race. But, before he can get his message out… he’s gunned down by the military. Same old story. Maybe he needed Google Translate.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the only sci-fi alien invasion movies of the ‘50s to actually suggest that alien intelligence might come in peace, bearing gifts. But with a caveat: they do hold an ace card of enormous destructive power that could incinerate the planet if Earthlings fail to grasp the message of peace and harmony. Your call, Earthlings. 

Anyway, Arrival has also been compared to Contact and Gravity, but these seem like facile, surface comparisons at best. Though female heroines are familiar territory for director Villenueve, who, in the gripping Sicario, plunked down FBI agent Emily Blunt in the alien world of drug trafficking south of the US border. (Villeneuve’s next project is the Blade Runner sequel late this year, so he’s on a roll.)

What really pulls this sci-fi tale together is a strong performance by Adams, sitting smack center of the events and slowly drawing just the right conclusions about their new guests on Earth. She doesn’t always have to speak; her face registers a range of emotions, from grief to wonder and back again. Watching her holding up a whiteboard to communicate basic words to their new heptapod friends is almost a bit like The Miracle Worker, or maybe 2001: it feels like uncharted territory. (Adams failed to get an Oscar nod for this strong performance.) Renner and Forest Whitaker (as a military officer) are also sympathetic presences in a male-dominated landscape that prefers to blast away first, settle language differences later.

Director Villenueve is a master at establishing tone. There’s a creeping sense of panic and paranoia — shown by spreading global riots and panic — that escalates as the answers remain elusive.

What also helps Arrival is a stark look that relies on sparse use of special digital effects. (The budget was a relatively sane $49 million, and it’s earned $175 million at the box office.) There’s motion-capture technology and CGI here, but it’s done tastefully, to preserve the sense of mystery.  This is largely a contemplative film, not an action-packed spectacle; the script examines our notions of time and memory with touches that remind you of Terence Malick’s ruminations. Rather than bludgeoning us with Hollywood special effects, Arrival lures us in, making us want to unravel that mystery as well.




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