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‘Arrival’ review: one of the best sci-fi films since ‘Contact’

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FILM REVIEW: Riveting, poignant performance by Amy Adams.



NEW YORK: In the era of big budget sci-fi films, where plausibility plays second fiddle to fascinating tech wizardry on far-away planets teeming with life, or it’s all about striving to give a VR kind of experience to myriad perils in outer space – with a predictable climax, ‘Arrival’ is one of those rare, memorable, indelible films like ‘Contact’, which after it’s over, you don’t want to switch on your smartphone immediately and check email, but instead get into a thoughtful, lingering conversation with those you saw it with, delighting in going through the various nuances you were just treated to.

I usually say this at the end of a film review – if I really liked the film, but for once let me give it straight up: watch this lovely gem of a film, don’t let it go by.

There’s soul in the script of ‘Arrival’ – written by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s novella ‘Story of Your Life’; rhythmic flow, poetic vision in its telling – directed by Denis Villeneuve of ‘Sicario’ fame, with superb music by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; all brought seamlessly together with an Academy Award-worthy, riveting and poignant performance by Amy Adams. If Matt Damon could get nominated for ‘The Martian’, Adams should be entrusted with an Oscar for this one.

The story of ‘Arrival’ revolves around the possibility of Earth being attacked, perhaps obliterated, by mysterious aliens, who have descended without any warning one fine day via 12 gargantuan-sized, hemispheroid-shaped spaceships hovering above the surface at different locations around the globe. Imagine Stonehenge, a thousand times bigger, levitating.

The confounding situation becomes even more complicated as no aliens emerge from these spaceships, but communicate through puzzling language – akin to the radio signals in Robert Zemeckis’s ‘Contact’ and music in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’.

The aliens throw open a portal in their spaceship at a fixed time daily, for humans to enter their lair, establish contact. As society spins into chaos around the world, and governments scurry to decipher the strange goings on, and take adequate measures – unsure whether to wait and watch or to go on the offensive – the US, like other countries where these spaceships are hovering, send their own team of experts to try decipher the purpose of the aliens’ visit. Are they dangerous?

Amy Adams, who plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics with a tragic past as shown in the beginning of the film – having lost her teenage-aged daughter to presumably cancer, and Jeremy Renner, who plays Ian Donnelly, a mild-mannered scientist, are the duo selected by an officer in the US Army, Col. Weber (played by Forest Whitaker), to establish contact with the aliens on the spaceship hovering above an area in Montana.

The disturbing, complicated language of the aliens – transmitted through black smoke-like substance that once emitted reshapes into circular signs loaded with meaning that vexes mathematicians and linguists at first, also evokes surprisingly, memories for Banks from her personal life. She grapples with the growing reality that there’s surreal meaning to what’s happening around her; like pointillism, the signs are connected to her life, vital to her existence.

Matters begin to get out of control, as China, along with some other nations, cut communication with other countries, decide to take military action against the aliens.

Who will prevail, the aliens, or humans? Are the aliens really dangerous, or are they trying to communicate on an existential level, warn or teach Earth? Will humanity come to an end?

Like wheels within wheels, there are exquisite stories within stories in ‘Arrival’, the sub-plots of which sometimes is as clear as looking at the reflection of the sky in a placid lake on a still day. And at other times, one’s not sure if it’s not the sky itself lying at the bottom of the lake.

Like ‘Contact’ – arguably one of the greatest sci-fi films to be ever made – ‘Arrival’ poses disturbing questions about who human beings really are. It makes one wonder if there’re worlds out there, beyond grasp of understanding, but which may suddenly, be revealed the next day. Are we being watched constantly by superior beings from outer space? Are we a species merely under a giant microscope? Are our vain, egoistic, selfish selves being ridiculed by beings who have achieved unimaginable technology, know how to travel time, circumnavigate reality?

‘Arrival’ is not a film to be missed.

(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1)