Do we need, once again, to be saved? From ourselves?
Alien contact stories such as “Arrival” — which opened Nov. 11 at SIFF Cinema Uptown in Lower Queen Anne — usually imply “yes” to this question. The aliens come because we’re heading down a wrong path and need to take a detour. In these stories, extraterrestrials arrive on our doorstep to provide the needed correction, either as saviors bringing Promethean fire down from the mountaintop, or malevolent interlopers who provide humanity cause to unite against a common enemy.
In this film, the aliens interrupt Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) during her lecture on the history of Portuguese. Her students file out of the classroom neatly after a few alarms go off. They continue in an orderly fashion around the college campus, requiring only a few prods and pokes in the right direction from security.
Such scenarios often summon The Only One Who Can Do The Job Right. Although Adams dons this mantle quickly, she’s bolstered by Jeremy Renner’s mathematician, Forest Whitaker’s army colonel, and a bevy of scientists speaking different languages worldwide. She’ll meet the aliens and, like most first contact stories, the great suspense is the first meeting — the journey to confront that which grew and evolved utterly unlike anything on Earth.
Whitaker, spouting a strange, shifting series of accents to underscore the plot’s primacy of language, wants answers because he’s under heavy pressure from his bosses to get them. Adams says she needs more time to avoid misunderstandings. We might be talking aliens, but anyone who’s ever had a boss and a deadline can feel for both parties.
We feel, too, for the fragility of society’s stability, its security and the best intentions of the people representing humanity on the frontlines. Despite vowing to do their duty and keep their cool, these folks remain undermined by nimrods with webcams stoking the public’s base instinct to distrust these “invaders” — a great grating cacophony of wheels rusted over with cynicism and distrust.
Writing this review prior to the election for President of the United States, it’s difficult not to see parallels in this movie to a race that saw much ado about supposed terrestrial invaders on our soil — a race that has stoked many voters’ fear of the “other.” From this side of time, it’s impossible to know how we, as a nation, have responded to this threat, real or perceived. Maybe it’s impossible to know which path is correct.
Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, working from an award-winning story by Bellevue-based author Ted Chiang, ring all the right bells, standing tall in a long line of alien contact cinema. It matches the original “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) for urgency and its sour survey of Earthling warmongering; Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in imagining the majesty and mystery of interspecies meetings; and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky for creating rich temporal dislocations within a science fiction framework.
However, the story collapses into its own sentiment by the end. I forgive it this. I wanted the characters who had struggled so hard to find the happiness they sought. There’s a necessary sadness to that want. Never the rose, wrote Tom Verlaine, without the prick.
At least one of the characters knows that prick will puncture. Saying yes to happiness will summon the total package of hurt and healing. So she says yes to a hard struggle — but a righteous one. Maybe we can be saved from ourselves in the end, if enough people ponder and accept the limitations of love and happiness as highlights to the strengths of both.