Arrival

 

            Time is not linear, but circular.  That's the operating premise of this unusual film, and it impacts the screenplay in a number of ways.

            The beginning is really a flash-forward to the end.  And the images you see at the beginning actually apply to things that happen after the ending.  Confused yet?

            Imagine that the aliens really have landed.  Or at least, they have chosen 12 locations on Earth on which to hover their spherical spaceships that resemble dirigibles turned vertically.

            Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist, a college professor whose intended lecture about the evolution of the Portugese from the Spanish in the Middle Ages is interrupted by this epochal event, where all the students---and faculty and staff---disappear to breathlessly await further developments.  The government calls a state of emergency, urging people to stay home, imposes a dawn-to-dusk curfew, and calls out the military.  Yes, our first reaction---along with other world governments---is to assume an “armed and ready” posture.

            Dr. Banks is approached because she has assisted the military before with a Farsi translation that apparently helped track down some terrorists.  She's invited to attempt to communicate with the aliens, to try to find out their purpose in visiting.  When she arrives on site, she meets a scientist/theoretical mathematician, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who teams with her to encounter the aliens.  After much anticipation, they finally meet.....giant heptapods?  Yes, octopus-like creatures, with fewer “legs,” but they squirt ink on a clear, hard barrier.  The “blots” are mostly circular, with many variations in the ridges. 

            There's a missed opportunity here, as it's not clear exactly when Dr. Banks makes her big communication breakthrough.  Somehow we go from “Me Tarzan, You Jane” (actually, “Me Louise, You Abbot and Costello”) to Dr. Banks being able to transpose their own complex symbols on the “screen” because she has already figured out a vocabulary.  (We overeducated geeks love it that the heroine is a linguistics professor almost as much as we love that the hero in “Inferno” is an antiquities professor.)

            Any time you mess with time in a movie, you risk confusing the viewer.  But here, Director Denis Villenueve seems to want the viewer to share the character's sense of being “at sea” here, completely bewildered most of the time, fighting exhaustion as well as the urgent aggressiveness of their military “handlers,” whose first instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later.  But Dr. Banks  has risked making herself vulnerable to the aliens, and they reward her with a communicating to her their skill at transcending linear time.  Thus, she is able to discern their meaning when they seem to be projecting images into her head about things that haven't yet happened, a knowledge which greatly impacts how she handles the present.

            Yes, there's some viewer deception.  Get over it.  And viewers will respond very differently to the ending---some literally in tears because of tapping into some deep-seated emotional memory, others wanting to discuss the ramifications of the plot twist.  This is one unusually inventive film.  And it will receive a lot of attention.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you think there are “aliens” out there, living on other planets or solar systems?

2)                  If the aliens did land here, what do you think their intent would be?

3)                  We experience time as linear, but does the universe---or the Divine---experience time differently?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association