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Sci-Fi Saga 'Arrival' Asks: Can Humans Learn To Speak The Language Of Aliens?


This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new sci-fi drama "Arrival" starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, co-star.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Have you ever thought about the idea that in American space-alien-invasion movies, extraterrestrials have no problem mastering the King's English? Well, "Arrival" is different. Communication between earthlings and aliens doesn't happen at the start. It's the source of the suspense, what the movie builds to, because you can't know what ETs want if you can't ask and they can't answer. Are they here to exterminate us? To save us? Who can interpret their weird burbles? A linguist maybe. Her name is Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams. The aliens have arrived in vessels that look like titanic, mile-high wedges, which hover in seemingly random spots all over the planet. No one knows their intentions. Out of nowhere, Forest Whitaker as a military colonel descends on Louisa's very nice lake house in a very loud chopper and plays her a recording.


FOREST WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) I have something I need you to translate for me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why are you here? Can you - can you understand us?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where did you come from?


WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) And now you heard it. What do you make of it?

AMY ADAMS: (As Dr. Louise Banks) Is that...

WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) Yes.

EDELSTEIN: Louise's intrigued. Who wouldn't be? And what follows is a tantalizing puzzle. She goes to the alien ship. Her body is sucked into a long, vertical entryway where she has to adapt to changes in pressure and gravity. Then she moves into a dark chamber where the aliens - they're dubbed heptapods - melt out of a mist behind a transparent partition. The strangeness is intoxicating. The director, Denis Villeneuve, has a gift for making that kind of strangeness seem like the human condition, the real reality. As in his films "Incendies," "Prisoners" and "Sicario," he mixes penetrating closeups with chill, blurred backgrounds. It's as if his characters live in a void where they're forced to rethink everything they thought they knew. What Louise senses is that her job won't be to learn a new vocabulary. Mastering the heptapod syntax might require a change in our brains, which might even end up challenging the concept of linear time. "Arrival" is based on "The Story Of Your Life," a short story by the brainy sci-fi cult author Ted Chiang, and the part of the movie that's closest to its source is great stuff. Chiang's story isn't really about an invasion. The invasion is a device for exploring what happens as we move from a universe of Newtonian cause-and-effect into the realm of quantum physics. That idea is in the film, and it's riveting. But there's another equally insistent plot straight from the '50s sci-fi B-movie playbook. Before Louise even figures out how to talk to the heptapods, she must square off against a hawkish military. For some reason, the fate of the entire world comes to rest on a stereotypical warmongering Chinese general named Shang who wants to start blasting before he even knows the aliens' intentions, let alone capabilities. It's so clunky. Thank heaven for Amy Adams who makes even the silliest parts of the movie work. She's a grounded actress, direct, plain-spoken, but there's also something brittle about her, mysteriously brittle, as if there's been some trauma in her past and she can't quite breakthrough into the moment. That quality is perfect for Louise, who seems to be searching for self as well as scientific knowledge. When the aliens arrive, she's in mourning for a lost daughter who's seen in dislocating flashes. Somehow the heptapods hold the key to her past. Her eyes come alive when she first beholds their writing, which looks like exquisite ink paintings on air currents that seem like water, as if squids were doing Japanese calligraphy. When the revelations come, they're shocking and very moving. You just have to put that other part of "Arrival" with the B-movie general out of your mind. The film is an inadvertent demonstration that Hollywood studios and visionary science fiction writers inhabit a different time-space continuum.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, we speak with actor and singer Anna Kendrick. Her new memoir is called "Scrappy Little Nobody." Hope you can join us. We'll end today's show with music by Leonard Cohen, whose death at age 82 was announced last night. We'll rebroadcast Terry's 2006 interview with him on the Friday after Thanksgiving. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) The birds, they sing at the break of day. Start again, I heard them say. Don't dwell on what has passed or what is yet to be. Yeah, the wars, they will be fought again. The holy dove, she will be caught again. Bought and sold and bought again, the dove is never free. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. We asked for signs. The signs were sent - the birth betrayed, the marriage spent. Yeah, the widowhood of every government - signs for all to see. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.