Leave the cannoli, take the movies

Review Blog


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 9, 2016 at 2:15 PM


Denis Villeneuve


IDEA:  A linguistics professor is enlisted by the military to decipher the language of aliens who have landed around the globe.

BLURB:  Arrival confounds audience expectations in minor but satisfying ways. First: despite its extraterrestrial subject matter, the film offers an exceedingly human-scaled story about one woman’s journey in confronting the ripples of grief and connection. Physically it is just as pared-down, rarely leaving the gravity-defying corridor of the alien spacecraft or the adjacent military compound. These locations, shot through with a murky gray haze, become the unassuming sites of this woman’s internal drama. Second and most importantly: its structure gently plays with the spectator’s perception of narrative chronology. In thrilling accord with Louise’s evolving mastery of an alien language, our own increasing grasp of the film’s unique syntax is commensurate with how we understand its construction of time. This blossoming semiotic comprehension is not particularly complex, but by mirroring it to Louise’s mental transformation through an alternative language, Villeneuve renders visible his own cinematic language, and thus by extension the ways in which it structures and reconfigures our reading of his film. Also confounding, although more to its detriment, is how Arrival falls short of truly investing in a nonlinear temporal perspective. Outside of its best, most dramatically rich moments – the first entry into the alien passageway, especially – it is never as perceptually disorienting as it perhaps should be, adhering to a deterministic logic that often seems to contradict its imagining of an “other” time. Still, even with its frustrating aporias, Arrival is thought-provoking and lean and unusual in ways that sometimes redefine those very kinds of attributes.

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