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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

November 16, 2016

Three Takes on Arrival

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“What happens now?”

“They arrive.”

by Elyes Benatar

Arrival. The title itself echoes as a strike against convention. This is not a film about aliens invading. It’s a film about aliens arriving. It’s a film that presents a realistic narrative about humanity’s attempts at contact and interaction with extraterrestrial beings. Arrival accomplishes the best of what the science fiction genre can and should do. It creates a sense of wonderment and scope about the possibilities of the universe and our world, it raises questions regarding potential scenarios across the realms of science and other fields, and it mirrors our present society in a way that delivers a profound message about our humanity.

The initial premise of Arrival concerns a narrative where alien spacecrafts have landed at random points across the globe, and an expert linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to determine the purpose and reason behind why these aliens are visiting Earth. Adapted to the screen by Eric Heisserer from the 1998 Ted Chiang short story Story of Your Life, I found the deftness with which the intellectual elements were blended with the overall narrative to be extremely impressive in a way that is challenging and interesting yet also quite accessible and very humanizing. It’s one thing to present hard science and linguistics to an audience, but it’s quite another thing to do it in a way that feels organic to the setting and is applicable in real life scenarios.

Two of the main stars of the show however, are both behind the camera in the director and the cinematographer. Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, who has made a name for himself as one of the best directors of the decade so far with such hits as Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and last year’s Sicario, is working at his absolute peak and represents his range by handling a story that is quite different from his previous works. He takes his time beautifully here, letting scenes unfold in a quiet sort of motion, building a slow burn where the tone shifts from mysterious to tense to somber as the film goes on. There is a beautiful understanding of cinematic language between Villeneuve and his cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) with the on-screen composition and the way information is presented visually in a show-don’t-tell sort of way. There is also a striking contrast between the coldness of the Montana setting where the alien spacecraft has landed and the warmth with which the flashbacks are presented. Indeed, I found the flashbacks in the prologue and interspersed throughout the film to be quite evocative of the works of Terrence Malick, with their soft cinematography and shallow depth of field eliciting quite an emotional response from me.

I also have to put in a strong word for what we are shown onscreen. The production design and visual effects are wholly unique, and are used to serve the story rather than just to be pure spectacle. The design of the spacecraft and the aliens is very minimalistic and sparse yet very striking, subverting classic science fiction tropes of how we would normally perceive extraterrestrial life. There are also several sequences revolving around the spacecraft which are riveting, the first encounter with the aliens in particular, and part of why that works so well is how good the actors are at portraying their emotions. And speaking of the actors, everyone puts in good work here. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg do strong character work, and Jeremy Renner gives a really good supporting performance, but this is Amy Adams’ movie through and through. She gives a towering performance, easily one of the best I have seen all year. She brings a level of feeling to her character that is unparalleled, and further underscores her status as one of the best actors of our generation. Her character arc is quite unique and profound, and raises many questions which reflect her character as well as the rest of humanity.

This is a film which manages to carry many influences whilst blazing a trail as a fresh piece in the genre of science fiction. It creates a cinematic vision out of Ted Chiang’s short story which deals in hard science and linguistic relativity. It carries subtle influences from the likes of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, evoking Billy Pilgrim’s journey and encounter with Tralfamadorians. It uses film as a medium to challenge the audience in a way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey did, and creates a sense of wonder while hitting emotional and sentimental beats in a wholly effecting way similar to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It bears thematic similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but handles its overall message much more smartly and effectively. And in these current times, particularly following events which have occurred in the past week, it presents a message that is hopeful and uplifting and essential. One that pushes forward the importance to unite and accept and understand one another. At the end of the day, Arrival takes its place as the best film of the year so far, one of the all time great science fiction films, and one of the absolute standout films of the decade so far.

Elyes Benantar is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at eb557@cornell.edu. 

ARRIVAL

The Political Allegory of Arrival

by Zachary Lee

Let’s face it: in cinematic history, humanity has not had the best experiences with extraterrestrial first contact. In War of the Worlds, martians who were basically oversized brains with tentacles took hold of tripods and almost destroyed all of England with heat rays. In Alien, Xenomorphs impregnated themselves into human beings and burst through chest cavities with gory results. In Transformers, someone’s brand new Mercedes could very well be a hulking Decepticon that could destroy an entire city. So it is understandable that when 12 alien spacecrafts touch down on several different areas of the globe in Arrival, the governments of the world feel more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.

Yet surprisingly, these extraterrestrial life bear none of the belligerent tendencies of their cinematic counterparts. Their ships (codenamed “shells” by the government) have no external armaments and look more like enormous computer mouses rather than war vessels. The aliens themselves resemble gargantuan cephalopods, yet make no effort to attack when they see humans. But nonetheless, their arrival sparks mass panic, and government agencies across the world debate whether or not to destroy the spacecraft or attempt to communicate with them. The U.S. decides to proceed with the latter, and senior military officer Colonel Weber is ordered to bring in linguist Dr. Louise Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnely to attempt first contact with the alien ship that has landed in Montana. Yet despite Louise’s and Ian’s efforts, the other governments grow impatient and threaten to destroy the alien ships. The duo has to decipher the aliens’ complex language and ask why they are here before humanity declares all-out war against the invaders.

Arrival’s premise almost sounds like the potential plot to an Independence Day spin-off film, but director Denis Villeneuve (of Prisoners and Sicario fame) is able to steer Arrival out of the dangers of a stereotypical sci-fi movie and instead delivers a cerebral, sobering and relevant film that emphasizes the importance of unity and communication. The movie, whose literary DNA comes from Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life, is further bolstered by stellar performances of Adams, Renner and Whitaker. Interestingly enough for a movie called Arrival, Villeneuve spends very little time focusing on the actual landing of the aliens. Their big debut lacks some of the gravitas and excitement that I initially thought would be present. However, as riots and mass panic erupt across the globe and the China’s armies aim their missiles at the alien spacecraft, Villeneuve masterfully interweaves throughout the story an eerie sense of realism of the world’s reaction to a first intergalactic encounter.

Arrival succeeds because it operates on an intimate scale. What the film lacks in CGI spectacle, it makes up for by asking provocative questions on language and patience. At first, Colonel Weber berates Dr. Banks for wanting to teach the aliens (later dubbed “Heptapods” due to their seven appendages) basic vocabulary words. Weber wanted her to ask the aliens why they were there and if they had any harmful intentions. Louise retorts back stating that language acquisition was not something one could rush but requires patience and care. However, after the first few scenes where she and Ian attempt to communicate with the aliens, I could understand the Colonel’s impatience at the language learning process. As the world slowly descends into fear and chaos, the drawn-out moments of Louise teaching the heptapods the word for “walk” seemed out of place. Yet therein lies the genius of Villeneuve’s intrinsic care for detail. Through the slower-paced scenes, he was able to show how translation and language communication is not always easy. It is often difficult and sluggish. The process reminded me of when I spent countless hours pouring over Jorge Luis Borges’ essay Borges y Yo in Spanish and was barely able to crack the surface of his thesis. Yet even if I understood only a fraction, I felt rewarded. In Arrival, even with the smallest linguistic breakthrough, I could not help but celebrate with Louise and Ian their achievements. Despite the difficulties of translation, rather than giving up I was reminded that it was important to persist through the monotony and take the road less traveled.

Through these translation scenes, Villeneuve was able to communicate a timely message: that there is a beauty to diversity. Louise stated that language affects one’s world view, and once I and the audience began to understand the aliens’ written language (which were strangely cryptic black circles with a few other side embellishments), we began to understand their world and think in their mindset. The aliens see time as non-linear and view past, present and future at the same time. It was interesting to see Louise use foreknowledge and intuition as an aid in the translation process. It was also refreshing to the importance of how science, math and the humanities collaborate together to decipher the alien language. In the true spirit of the liberal arts curriculum, I found it satisfying to experience that the fields of science, math and the humanities work in tandem to solve a worldwide crisis. As Louise recorded the aliens’ sentences and Ian would break down the sentences and create an alphabetic system, I discovered how language not only built a bridge between humans and aliens but unite humanity with one another as well.

Given the current reality of polarization and division across racial, social and economic boundaries in America, Arrival carries a timely message and calls for a revival of unity. Rather than live within the safety of our bubbles, we need to build relationships and learn how to communicate with one another. Even if it seems too difficult to hear or listen to what others say, we should not be intolerant. We must be willing to open our minds and hearts to difference, and learn how to respectfully disagree. Arrival likewise tells us to speak not just with our words, but from with our hearts.

Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornellsun.com.

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Arrival: Fresh Alien Blood for a Whole Genre

by David Gouldthorpe

Who wants to see another movie about aliens? The premise dates back over a hundred years, with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. 1951 brought us The Day the Earth Stood Still, and since then Hollywood has asked “What would aliens find when they met us? What would they do?” It’s a trope played with so many times that it’s hard to think that something new can be wrung from it. Yet that’s exactly what Arrival has accomplished. The movie was made by Paramount Pictures, directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” In it, we’re treated to a fantastic take on the aliens-arrive-on-Earth tale.

The story centers around Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who teaches linguistics at the university level. One day her class is interrupted as students begin getting notifications on their phones — bonus points for realism there. It turns out that alien ships have touched down around the world! A short time later, the military approaches her for help translating the aliens’ language in order to discover their intentions.  The rest of the movie revolves around her racing to decipher a language developed separately from anything on Earth, from creatures whose brains evolved separately from anything on Earth, and understand it enough to communicate back. In the meantime she’s racing against trigger-happy individuals and the effects that the language is having on her mindset in order to stop a potential interplanetary war.

Arrival in many ways reminds me of 2010’s Inception, with a more cerebral plot that deals with complex concepts. However, it doesn’t shoot over the audience’s head. Whenever a line of words are strung together that leaves us momentarily confused, we are immediately shown the practical applications. The movie also remembers to ground itself in emotion, which it does effectively in the introduction. Too many movies make the mistake of immediately dropping us into some hectic or heady plot without remembering to connect with its characters. If we don’t care about the characters, we do not care about the movie, plain and simple. Luckily we’re immediately introduced to Dr. Banks, and one short montage later I was reduced to tears. After that emotional bond is formed, the movie then begins to bring more pieces onto the board, and we are invested for the rest of the screentime. Arrival runs at a slower pace, but never feels like it’s dragging its feet. In fact, at the beginning of the third act we’re given an impressive twist that successfully reframes the entire film and leaves a lingering emotional conundrum that continues long after the credits roll. It engages us for the entire two-hour screen time and gives us something worth keeping afterwards.

One of the movie’s strongest aspects is how it approaches the subject in a very grounded and real sense.  I would contrast it with the likes of Independence Day, which revels in spectacle. Arrival doesn’t even make the aliens themselves the centerpiece of the movie. When they first arrive, we’re not allowed to see the ships yet. Instead the movie focuses on the reactions of humans to their new extraterrestrial guests.  We see personal reactions, like an extended shot that lingers on Dr. Banks’ face as she’s watching the first reports, to news stories discussing escalating unrest and international tensions.  Speaking of the media, Arrival goes beyond generic news stories to communicate plot importance. It demonstrates how extreme echo-chamber media networks can have concrete consequences. A group of young soldiers hear a right-wing talkshow talking about how the government should blow the aliens out of the sky, and therefore break ranks to attack the ship. I sadly do believe that’s something that would happen if extraterrestrial contact occurred. As for the military itself, I enjoy that they were not presented as a group of trigger-happy cowboys as they often are. When Dr. Banks and her team arrive at the landing site, the commanding officers give them a series of physical protections (like booster shots) and psychological evaluations. All precautions are taken when approaching the extraterrestrial craft. In fact, when it’s feared that the aliens might leak their atmosphere into the visiting chamber, a canary is brought along for the same reasons miners carried them into the tunnels. The scenes revolving around the visit prep don’t contribute to the plot, but they add to a grounded and realistic mood. With this atmosphere installed, the ventures into fantasy become more impactful and stunning. When the aliens were actually revealed, and then only partially, I felt a shiver run down my spine. The film does perhaps venture a bit too far into the fantastical within the third act; I don’t want to to reveal how so here, but it doesn’t betray the atmosphere in any total sense. I felt like I could still play along.

The visuals of Arrival also play into the plot very effectively. I especially applaud the design of the ship and the aliens themselves. They feel so familiar, yet I can’t say where I’ve seen anything like them before. The film eschews the little green men and flying saucers of popular consciousness, yet replaced them with something that feels just as natural. The cinematography also succeeds in heightening the tension that we feel. Again, Arrival faces the challenge of taking up the helm of a genre that has done it all. We know they’re going into the ship and we know they’re going to meet the aliens. Yet somehow, we feel just as excited and tense as if it was our first time watching these tropes play out. One shot in particular that stuck out to me occurred when Dr. Banks and her team were first being lifted up towards the bottom of the alien craft. One of the members reached his hand up to feel the hull of the ship. The camera cuts to a tight shot of his clumsily gloved hand reaching up, touching the dark surface of the hull, and lightly brushing its fingers across. We feel the excitement, the awe, the courage needed to do such a thing. The palette also lends itself to creating proper moods for the film. The screentime is mostly dominated by cooler colors during the more thought-provoking scenes, but the emotionally “warm” scenes are accompanied by a corresponding palette featuring brighter and more vibrant hues. They accentuate the atmosphere and underscore the plot’s movements in an excellent way.

Really, I don’t know how much more I can say about this movie. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson accompanies it very well, and incorporates lots of vocals to underline the theme surrounding language. Amy Adams gives us a great performance. I have a feeling that she’ll remember this film more fondly than her limited presence in Batman v. Superman. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker work well in their supporting roles. So ultimately, I have to give Arrival very high praise. The film succeeds in breathing new life into a familiar genre by combining heady theory with heartfelt emotion. There are times where it stretches its limits a bit over the edge, but I’d give it a solid 9/10. Arrival carries both brilliant inspiration and more-than-competent execution. Go see it in theaters if you can!

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com.

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