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FILM REVIEW: 'ARRIVAL'

 

By Philip Revzin

CHICAGO, 21 DECEMBER 2016 — Movies have always enjoyed playing around with time, from The Time Machine to Benjamin Button to Interstellar.

Without spoiling it for those who haven't seen it yet, suffice it to say that Arrival, the newest refreshing sci-fi movie in a line stretching from Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian, plays around with our notion of time a lot. It also profoundly challenges our assumptions about language, relationships and power. And to top it off, it’s really beautiful, and it’s got potentially scary outer-space monsters that turn out to be about as scary as they would be if they were made out of Play-Doh..

Arrival is held together by an Oscar-worthy performance by Amy Adams as Louise Banks, complemented by a strong showing by Jeremy Renner, who is given a lot more to do here than he usually is in the X-Men series. She’s a linguist and he’s a data whiz sent to a makeshift Army base in the wilds of Montana where for some reason one of 12 alien spaceships, looking like a cross between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith and a badly rolled cigar, have sort of landed, hovering just above land or sea.


Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival

The military folks resist, for a time, their natural urges to attack the things, though they manage to muck things up politically anyway, and Renner’s character tries all sorts of measurements and stuff. Meanwhile, Adams’ character figures out all those foghorn sounds are the creatures trying to communicate, writes them a note, and is rewarded by their issuing forth ink that forms into peculiar circular symbols with various blotches and curlicues attached. Her quest and eventual success in figuring out what this all means takes up most of the movie, and in so doing director Denis Villeneuve delivers thought-provoking ideas not only about time, but also about language, communication, life, and death. That’s a lot for any movie, but Arrival pulls it off without being preachy.


Amy Adams in Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival

The movie is based on a legendary science-fiction short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, and both versions remind us of the power of fantastical stories to stretch accepted truths and notions in ways that may violate the laws of physics, but yield completely fresh thinking about subjects we don’t think about enough. That’s been true for a very long time, and long may it continue. We need diversion, but we also need philosophy.


Forrest Whitaker, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner in Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival

So come to Arrival for the seven-legged monsters or Amy Adams or Jeremy Renner or Forrest Whitaker as the good-guy Army officer, but leave actually thinking about heavy stuff like time and mortality, and realize you’ve been entertained to boot.

That’s not a bad thing for any movie to accomplish right now.


Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on Fake News for Culturekiosque. More recently, Philip Revzin is the author of Just One Before I Die: A Cubs Fan’s Chronicle of a Championship Season, currently available in a Kindle edition on Amazon.com.

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