When Aliens Visit, a Linguist Works to Break the Language Barrier

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By Vincent Abbatecola

Over the course of the science-fiction genre, the concept of aliens coming to Earth has always been an enticing premise. Whether they come to help, harm, or simply learn about our civilization, there’s a chance it will serve as a great story, if handled well. One of the best aspects about films like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is how they offer a memorable sci-fi adventure while providing a thought-provoking story

After several rock-solid thrillers, director Denis Villeneuve now brings his latest triumph with “Arrival.” It’s not often that we get a movie such as this in the sci-fi genre, but it’s a true gift when we do. With a strong central performance, awe-inspiring visuals, and an intelligent narrative, this is the type of sci-fi movie that audiences deserve.

One day, a dozen alien spacecrafts land at various locations around the world. Wanting to attempt communication, the military recruits linguist Louis Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher the aliens’ language, pairing her with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). As their work progresses, they will soon realize the true motivations behind the aliens’ visit.

Amy Adams delivers another stunning and emotional performance. While playing an intellectual who’s an expert in her field, Adams superbly shows the awe her character feels when confronted with such otherworldly mysteries, mirroring the audience’s sentiment of watching the grandness of the story unfold. Throughout her screen time, the interest and dedication her character displays in her work keeps us invested in her scientific discovery and thrive on the thrill of learning about something extraordinary. However, beneath all of this, there are pieces of something deeper within her performance, the details of which I don’t want to disclose due to possible spoilers, but it all adds to another rich showcase for Adams’ acting talent.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer, which is based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life,” is a superb adaptation of the source material and that rare instance where the film is as enthralling as the story on which it’s based. The movie brilliantly displays Chiang’s themes of fate and time, which bring you to an ending that’s uncommonly and refreshingly affecting for a modern, mainstream sci-fi film.

While the short story was very detailed and technical when explaining the linguistic rules of the aliens, the film condenses that information, yet still retains the intrigue of how their language works. It all serves as a different way in which to look at the aliens’ world without ever seeing it. In the film, the learning experience through which the main characters go effortlessly draws us in as we witness the interactions between the humans and aliens when they try to understand each other, all of which gives us the feeling of looking through a window of a laboratory and watching a scientific breakthrough take place.

One of the major differences between the short story and film is how Heisserer injects the narrative with some commentary on the current state of the world. Without giving too much away, the film touches upon the essential need for people to work together when in the middle of such a world-changing occurrence, and this is an encouraging and inspiring idea to have in a movie as we live through times of harmful division. In the end, Heisserer not only captures the emotional spirit of Chiang’s story, but he heightens that emotion with the use of some political relevance.

Villeneuve has crafted a film that recalls the majesty, magic, and poignance of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” as it carries similar elements of humans trying to communicate with otherworldly visitors and using ingenious methods to connect with these intelligent beings. It all comes down to the importance of people coming together with the hopes of deciphering a grand discovery.

Villeneuve is new to the sci-fi genre, but he brings his talent for capturing deep stories to “Arrival” and doesn’t let the visuals overpower the narrative, no matter how grand they may be. After this film, Villeneuve has shown he can conduct himself well with sci-fi, so it’s safe to say we have a lot to be excited for when he directs the “Blade Runner” sequel, “Blade Runner 2049,” which will be released in October 2017. After delivering masterful thrillers for his previous three films, Villeneuve will have much to contribute to the futuristic world that director Ridley Scott brought to the screen 34 years ago.

“Arrival” is the type of sci-fi movie of which we need more, one with startling beauty, drama, gorgeous cinematography, and impressive special effects. It’s one of those moviegoing scenarios where you come out of the film having gained much more than what you expected, and you can’t miss this opportunity to experience that.

Final Grade: A

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