We are used to seeing science fiction films that have lots of action, weird-looking aliens and some hair-raising danger. Arrival is a quiet film that uses language as the most significant inter-planetary bridge we possess. In it, Amy Adams plays a world-famous linguist called upon by the government to act as intermediary between humans and whatever inhabits the elongated oval hovercrafts that have landed in 12 different parts of our world. Jeremy Renner is the physicist/mathematician who partners with her in this endeavor and subsequently, in an equally important one. Since most of this movie consists of unraveling and understanding the proper sequence of events and their significance to each other, it’s important not to give away the plot.
Having said that, I can say that too much of the movie exists in a zone that becomes more soporific than spellbinding - this is not 2001 with its balletic sequence that mesmerizes accompanied by a melodic soundtrack. The sleek oval aircraft, looking like the most graceful carriers, contain creatures whose sound belches and reverberates as if we were underwater and whose attempts to communicate are insistently repetitive. In one dramatic scene, our intrepid heroine enters the interior of the craft unprotected by the requisite space-movie outer gear. What follows is a slo-mo unfolding and volumizing of her hair that looks more like a Clairol commercial than a close encounter; the actual impact of this scene is only grasped in retrospect when we understand the ramification of her personal life vis a vis this experience.
Unfortunately, it is easier to untangle Amy’s ponytail than the threads of the plot and I would bet that no five people would render it the same way. Though this may work well with a novel where you can re-read an earlier portion, it’s more difficult with a film in which you must rely on memory and on the director’s tricky flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout. There was an unusual amount of audience mobility which I attribute to a lack of comprehension of what was happening onscreen, especially since it is being shown at multiplexes instead of art theaters. Part of me applauds the decision to make this movie but the honest part admits that it became more boring than it should have and more confusing than elusive. Ironically, the skills of the linguist were of little help in extrapolating meaning from experience.
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