Arrival (2016)

One always has to applaud attempts to do a realistic SF, that is one set in our own reality, alien first contact film. It should also be watched by all world leaders and military types to understand the enormity of the problem of communication with an alien species when there is no cultural connection. One has to trust in the abilities of translators to do the right thing and walk before they can run. The complexities of our own language are hard enough, let alone conveying them into something totally alien and vice versa.

Twelve massive 1,500 feet tall semi-ovoids or bean-shapes spaceships appears round the world permitting human contact within them but keeping a barrier between themselves and the terrestrials. Through the murky screen, these are large beings supported on seven tentacles that get them called heptapods. For the landing in Montana, Colonel J.T. Weller (actor Forest Whitaker) brings in translator Louise Banks (actress Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (actor Jeremy Remmer) to get the communication started. Across the world, others are doing something similar. Banks makes the breakthrough by doffing her anti-radiation suit and mixing words with writing to begin the communication over the months.

The Eastern countries, especially China, are working out of fear and threaten to attack the aliens but all countries get fearful of passing information of what they’ve learnt, more so when one of the translations is thought to mean ‘use weapon’. Banks thinks it’s a misinterpretation which could well mean ‘tool’. If China and some of its associate countries weren’t fearful before, they were now.

What was up to that point a reasonably serious story then gets lost in mysticism and unexplained events and your guess is as good as mine but I think it means ‘world peace’, not helped by jump ahead from what happened.

There are some odd things to learn from this film. It’s all very well putting the teams in anti-radiation suits but with self-contained air supplies that can’t last beyond a couple hours, you would think that after the first time, they would be connected by hose for a longer air supply.

Likewise, there are a lot of missing elements as well. We don’t see how they realise that entrance can be made from the bottom. Equally, no one gives a scared reaction to the size of these heptapods who stand at least 30 ft high. Two thirds of this is on tentacles and with the difference gravity gets around the Square-Cube Law. There is a token isolation tube being taken out of the operational area but you would have thought it would have made sense to show a little more human reaction.

From a film perspective, we don’t really get to know the characters involved. It’s as if the writers and director thought to give more attention to the human element against the spectacular. It leaves the cast going through the motions than really caring about them as well. Certainly the relationship between Banks and Donnelly is shallow. A better ‘people director’ would have concentrated on developing this. The military are also shown to be idiots having to understand things which they have to pass up the line to Washington. You would have thought that the White House or Senate would have wanted to have a first person discussion with the translators at some point.

There are four long extras with the film. The first really does give mixed messages as to the quality of Science Fiction films out there, not helped by them using the term ‘Sci-Fi’. If all alien encounters got stuck in first contact mode, nothing else would ever be explored, not to mention run out of ideas of how to communicate. Likewise, not all alien encounters are threatening to mankind but they do have the biggest impact. Saying all alien spaceships were white is really a throwback to the 1950s, not to mention a raised eyebrow in that Canada doesn’t have any Science Fiction when so many are made there in films and TV shows. To have all the human scenes in lightless scenes might seem realistic to them but it can get hard on the eyes of the viewer.

As far as I can see the four extras are the same whether you buy the DVD or blu-ray edition. As such, I saved a fiver and bought the DVD version. Oddly, it didn’t play in my DVD recorder but it did on my other TV/DVD player and blu-ray player. Although I didn’t do an adjustment to prove the point, I did wonder if the reason that it didn’t play was because my DVD recorder was set on multi-region. Even watching it on blu-ray, there were certain parts of the film that were filmed too dark, even for when the mood is supposed to be lighter.

Looking through my comments above and what I learnt from the extras, I decided to watch the film again with more insight. The times where Banks is reflecting on her life with her daughter really don’t make sense for most of the film. There is little feeling that these are future events both in locale and what is seen. Banks looks the same age throughout. Little clues like greying hair or wrinkles would have clued the viewer in, assuming it could be seen in the dim colours.

Likewise, Banks is also the most uninterested person in the whole film. Think of your reaction if aliens landed on our planet right now. You would certainly want to find out what is going on and yet she doesn’t nor do we get to see why. If she can’t be even the slightest bit enthusiastic, then how can we be?

Having the film lensed through a nylon stocking throughout certainly doesn’t help matters. With the weather always depicted as cloudy in Montana, it also misses out on a great opportunity to show how the giant spaceship casts different shadows throughout the day depending on the sun’s position. As I learnt from reading the Michael Wiese Publications on films, using the weather to reflect the mood needed for the film, having some sunlight to brighten up the colours at the end would certainly have made it work better. The extra examining the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson certainly made me pay more attention to that quality.

For a message film it’s far too weak. Blink and you’ll miss the bit announced on the screen that the hetapods are setting up a favour that the humans will repay centuries into the future. The murkiness of Banks being temporally aware is also not explored sufficiently.

I hate putting a downer but ultimately, it feels like an art film trying to be an SF film and trying too hard to ignore aspects that would have strengthened its appeal.

GF Willmetts

April 2017

(region 2 DVD: pub: 20th Century Fox/Entertainment One. 1 DVD 111 minute film with extras. Price: £10.00 (UK). ASIN: E052092D)

cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Remmer and Forest Whitaker

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