Friday, January 6, 2017

Arrival (movie review post)

Right up front: This review is going to be full of spoilers, because I don't know how to do the film any justice in a review without talking about it, and you can't talk about this movie with spoiling it. The only way to do it is to say, "Go see the movie. It's really good," and leave it at that. And, actually, go see the movie. It's great.

It's not often you see a movie about linguistics. The idea of needing to translate something is really more of a gimmick that shows use to increase tension and complicate the plot. Like when a word is incorrectly translated causing the hero to do the wrong thing. Hmm... So, thinking about it, I can't think of any other movies where linguistics were the core of the plot. There might be some, but I don't know what they are (and I'm not going to go look because it's not that important).

The idea of translation, of communicating well and effectively, is one of the vital strands of the movie. I say "strands" because Arrival has several that are all effectively woven into one strong rope of a plot, something at which most movies fail. Which is why most movies are pretty straightforward with just one main idea. Taking several themes and weaving them into a whole is difficult, but director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer pull it off with aplomb. The story is stronger for what they have done and would suffer if any of the strands were pulled out to make it simpler.

Not that the movie gets down into the minutiae of linguistics, but it clearly demonstrates the importance of words and meanings right from the very beginning by telling us what the Sanskrit word we take to mean "war" really means: a desire for more cows. It's a not so subtle foreshadowing of one of the central conflicts of the movie involved in translating the language of the aliens. Oh, yeah, there are aliens, which I was taking as a given but maybe it's not.

The other linguistics issue the movie deals with -- and it's a central theme -- is how language shapes the way we think and how learning other languages can sort of re-wire our thoughts and how we see things. They don't really go into the theory in the movie -- choosing rather to show us as Louise learns to speak the alien language -- but I'm aware of the basics of it. A good example is how we describe things in English, placing the adjectives in front of the noun (the fast little red car), as opposed to the Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.), placing the adjectives after the noun (the car red fast little). This very simple variance shifts the way we look at the world, and does it in ways we can't see from inside ourselves.

I'm sure there's a metaphor in there.

This whole idea leads into the non-linear aspect of the movie, and this is probably the best non-linear movie I've ever seen. It hearkens back somewhat to Slaughterhouse-Five -- at least, it feels the same tonally in my head, but, then, it's been a while since I read Slaughterhouse -- but much more personal and intimate. It's beautiful and heartbreaking.

And leaves us with the other big question of the movie: If you know that something beautiful is going to end in pain, the kind of pain that will leave you wishing you could die, do you accept it anyway? That's a hard question to answer, and the movie doesn't exactly answer it for us, but it does push us in the direction it wants us to go.

Getting beyond the story, the acting is great. Amy Adams delivers a stellar performance. [It's the kind of movie that makes me want to say that she deserves a best actress Oscar for it, but I don't think her performance in this stands out amongst her body of work overall. American Hustle, yes, but this felt pretty "normal" for her.] Jeremy Renner was great, too. They were a good match on screen. Basically, all of the performances were good and solid, lending to the quality of the film as a whole. As such, no one stands out to me as having given the "best performance of his/her life;" it all just works together perfectly.

Of movies that are likely to get nominated for Best Picture (of the ones I've so far seen), this is my pick. Knowing myself, this will probably stay my pick. I don't think it will win, but I'm going to guess that Arrival will stay my favorite.


  1. I read the short story this was based on, so I'm glad to see (I think?) that they stuck to the same basic idea. It was a really fascinating concept, and I've found myself going over that central question a lot, about whether you would continue to do something that you know will turn out badly.

    "Turn out badly" of course is focusing on just one moment, though: if someone lives to be 22 but dies in an explosion on their 22nd birthday, we tend to think "turned out badly." But they may have had 22 great years and one terrible moment. Alternatively if someone lived to be 100 and died peacefully in their sleep, we think "that's an okay life" but it could have been a terrible life.

    It's something actually I think about with the boys and their autism: If I'd KNOWN they would be autistic, before Sweetie got pregnant, would we have had them anyway? I answered yes, so to me their outcomes aren't bad even though they struggle with things we take for granted, because I can see firsthand the many things they enjoy.

    The story suggested, too, that people almost didn't have a choice, that once they saw the future they would understand why it has to happen that way and wouldn't fight against it, which is a concept that helps avoid the free will aspect of time-travel and prescience: we have free will but we do what is required of us.


    1. Briane: Hmm... "What is required of us" is an interesting way to put it. What makes it a requirement? Is it only a requirement because it has already happened in the future and, really, we can't change it because it has already happened? If we're seeing the future as it is, CAN it even be changed. If it could, would we be able to see it?

      The movie implied that she did have a choice. She could have chosen to not enter the relationship that she did that resulted in her daughter, but she chose to do it so that she would have the time that she had. And, because time is not linear, those moments could be experienced over and over again and, thus, overshadowed the one horrible moment.

  2. It's about linguistics?? Why didn't they lead with that in the reviews I read?? Now I have to go see it right now.

    1. Jeanne: Honestly? Because they probably didn't get it. It's a cerebral kind of movie.

  3. The wife and I randomly decided to see this a couple weeks ago and really enjoyed it, too. This was definitely our movie of the year. The story was great, the twist was unexpected and brought everything together well, and it was very thought provoking. Like Briane said, there's this notion that if someone dies early, it means their life was "bad". Or a "waste". But it only focuses on the outcome, not the journey to get to that outcome. And while it's certainly not ideal, I'd still marry my wife in a heartbeat, even if I knew when I first met her that she'd die before she turned 30. I'd rather spend a short, wonderful time with my one true love than a long, lonely life of sadness based on this weak safety blanket of not getting hurt by that early outcome.

    1. ABftS: Yeah, the idea of choosing to do otherwise because of one moment of intense pain, letting that one moment encompass everything else, is... I don't have a word, right now. We have a very pain averse culture, though. We're all little butterflies who want someone to come cut us out of our cocoons rather than struggle to get out ourselves.

  4. A movie about words? Now I really must see this. I've only heard positive things so it must be pretty darn good.

  5. Definitely intrigued by this one, though I haven't seen it yet.