Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Arrival

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrival_(film)
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An extraterrestrial spacecraft lands in Montana just north of the I-94. The military has initiated contact, but doesn’t have the capacity to decipher the non-human language involved. Desperate for answers, Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) enlists the help of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert with the qualifications and an existing TS security clearance to match. She teams up with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and together they build a systematic approach in teaching the extraterrestrial duo enough vocabulary for them to articulate their purpose on Earth. This intergalactic dilemma is far from domestic, as eleven other “shells” have touched down across various other locations on the planet, and not all governments are advocating a friendly approach. As China begins to doubt and mobilizes its army to deal with the issue using brute force, Banks must race against time and tackle all the political hurdles to crack the linguistic enigma that might just save mankind.

Are you familiar with that feeling of just sitting down in front of a big screen yet constantly feel out of breath despite the absence of any taxing physical activity because you are that engrossed in the film you are watching? It’s a different kind of high that does not come often no thanks to the formulaic Hollywood fodder regularly on offer. In fact, most of the movies we’ve seen about aliens have been violent, depicting them as enemies that will obliterate us given the opportunity. Arrival takes a different approach, and while the excitement brought about by stunning visuals and action-packed scenes is not absent, the thrill is not mainly derived from them. Or perhaps it depends on the person watching, if linguistics is an area of interest for you. Otherwise, it might come off as a bit too geeky and technical.

Banks’ curiosity is YOUR curiosity, unless you have already met an alien in real life and could thus contest the liberties the crew took with their artistic license as far as depicting extraterrestrials is concerned. When she first suits up and Donnelly asks how the aliens look like, you share their eagerness. When they first experience the different gravitational force present in the spacecraft, you are just as amused and befuddled. When they begin to make progress in their linguistic endeavor, you are just as enthusiastic. Moreover, the storytelling leaves you hanging all the time, eager to find out what these extraterrestrials really want. Are they friend or foe? Is this going to be brutal in the end?

Perhaps the biggest pull for any language geek out there would be the alien language itself. They write by means of emitting a kind of smoky gas forming rings that seem identical at first, but later reveal subtle differences. The concept of a non-linear language, described as center-embedded, does tickle the imagination. When they discover that one ring is equivalent to an entire sentence, written neither left to right nor the other way around, the thought keeps your mind at work trying to figure out how it should process such a distinct alien form of communication. The non-linear premise as a whole is the crux of the film, and they do a really good job in making sure that it’s going to be the central recurring theme.

Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s "Story of Your Life". I haven’t read said short story, but a short synopsis on Wikipedia suggests that the whole story does revolve around Banks, making it more of a mother’s plight than a global dilemma being just incidental in the bigger picture. It’s a good strategy for storytelling purposes because it makes the problem very personal. While the aspects related to everything non-linear are hard to grasp, this humanization makes sure that the story still connects with the audience by hitting close to home.

Looking at things from an international perspective is also appealing, what with the current conflicts nowadays bringing the world to the brink of war. When you think of it, what can possibly force human beings to unite for once? An alien invasion comes to mind, but this film shows how we can still continue to be divided by race, nation, as well as religion regardless whether a problem affects all of us or not. In that case, we don’t even need to look at extraterrestrials to validate this argument. Climate Change is already a flashpoint in international relations. In the end, perhaps we are just doomed as a race to perish due to our very own doing. We will have already butchered one another to extinction when those aliens get here. I do hope that I can survive, though, so I can decipher their language, which is simply a language geek’s biggest dream.

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