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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Close Encounter of a Different Kind
by Frank Wilkins

Science fiction alien invasion flicks. They are a dime-a-dozen. Mysterious ship arrives on Earth and blows the population to smithereens. Or the creatures are disposed of in short order by flag-waving, cigar-chomping patriots who “don’t take no $%#@ off anyone.” Then, in some, the invaders arrive with mysterious intentions and we earthlings soon learn just how cerebrally outclassed we are by the intruders.

A different path, however, is taken by Denis Villenueve’s thought-provoking Arrival, a film that takes its focus away from the invaders -- for the most part -- and shines it directly on human character and the questions of what might happen if we actually tried to communicate and solve the puzzle of our differences with brains, rather than brawn. A novel concept, I know, but one that opens the way for us to investigate the purpose of our existence, discover our place in the universe, and to inspire unity among the people of earth. Arrival does all these things while at the same time providing just enough wonder and spectacle to transport us into a mesmerizing fantasy world.

In a beautiful, all-in performance, Amy Adams is linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks whose class gets interrupted by the sudden news of a dozen or so gigantic Pringles-chip-shaped alien vessels that have situated themselves over various locations scattered across the globe. They aren’t doing anything, just hovering 20 or so feet off the ground.

At home, Dr. Banks settles in with a glass of wine and reports of the incident playing on the TV. Visions of playing with her young daughter fill Louise’s head as Villeneuve toys with time via what appear to be sorrowful -- yet, at the same time -- peaceful flashbacks of Louise’s life.

Louise is soon visited by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) who enlists her linguistic services to help authorities translate and communicate with the alien invaders. Louise, along with mathematician and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) enter the spacecraft and try to decipher the alien writings which resemble circular octopus inkblots.

As gratifying as Adams’ multi-faceted performance is, Villenueve remains the real star of the show as he casts a spell of satisfying warmth over us with his deeply human film, which is adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story titled, “The Story of Your life.” Villeneuve unfurls the plot at a deliberately calculated pace, allowing us to savor the slow discovery in the same way the characters experience it. The story prizes language and the fine art of communication and how the misinterpretation of a single word might lead to horrendous circumstances. There’s a startling relevance to the alien communication conundrum as some of the world’s governments favor going to war over attempting to break the language barrier. That might be one of the film’s biggest and most striking realities.

There’s a satisfying trend in recent science fiction films, moving away from over-the-top spectacle and more towards broader reflective themes that make us think. Look to Gravity, Interstellar, and even Inception over the last few years to see the genre’s growth in that direction. Now add Arrival to that list as the triumphant trio of Villenueve, Adams, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer continue the trend with this race-against-the-clock Mobius strip of a tale weaving time, communication, and the notion of unity into a well-told thinking man’s detective story.

Arrival has come with a close encounter of a different kind. One that re-wires the brain and turns our perception of the linearity of time on its head. It stands in stark contrast to genre tropes and does what many science fiction films try to do but rarely succeed; it forces us to ponder the very things that define humanity. And in a world filled with widespread war and enchantment with brute force, doesn’t it make sense that we try to live in harmony if death is our undeniable outcome?

(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG-13” for brief strong language.)

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