Readers, I am not Shin, and this is not Week 3. I’m Helen – the friend Shin mentioned in her about blurb; we’re doing the 52 week challenge together. And while we’ll probably be seeing most films together, there’s a few places where our tastes do not overlap. So this morning I went to the cinema on my own to see something Shin had no interest in, and then hijacked her blog to tell you all about it. Extra reviews for you!
This morning’s film was Arrival.
Helen’s Rating: 4.5/5
There will be spoilers ahead (though I’m going to do my best to avoid the biggest ones).
I really enjoyed this film – but I say that with the caveat that whether you enjoy it is going to depend a lot on your taste in stories. Some people will absolutely hate it. It’s a very idea-driven story, and the plot is propelled through the viewer’s desire to figure out what’s going on and the characters’ discoveries as they slowly begin to communicate with the alien visitors. I think the most similar film I’ve seen (in terms of ideas and general feel) was Interstellar, so if you liked that, I would definitely give this a try.
Our protagonist, Louise, is working as a linguistics professor on the day that twelve strange alien ships land in different countries across Earth. Nothing comes out, and local militaries quickly blockade the landing sites. It doesn’t take long for the army to come to Louise: there are aliens inside the ships, and they need a linguist to help figure out how to communicate so they can find out what the aliens want. While the population of the Earth panics, and world leaders become increasingly nervous and trigger-happy, Louise has to learn the alien language and prevent the situation from going catastrophically wrong. And as her grasp of the language develops, it begins to change the way she thinks…
There’s a long history of sci-fi novels playing with the idea that the language you speak shapes and controls the way you think. Some novels (e.g. Babel-17, Stranger in a Strange Land) present alien or invented languages which shift the way people think to give them unusual mental abilities. Others (Embassytown, 1984, The Dispossessed) go the opposite way, with languages that constrict their speakers and make it impossible for them to consider certain ideas. So while the central concept of the story is far from a new idea, it’s one that I’ve never seen done in film before.
And it’s one that’s handled very well. My biggest concern going in to the film was that it would end up being slow-paced or boring, since you have less of the internal access to a character’s thoughts and watching someone bent over a computer screen trying to translate a language is not the most thrilling prospect in the world. But the film manages to keep the suspense and interest high throughout; I didn’t get bored or impatient at any point. The desire to solve the mystery of who these aliens are and what they’re doing on Earth deeps the story moving at a good pace, and the potential threat from both the aliens and from humanity’s own fears and worst impulses keeps the stakes high.
The visuals of the film also deserve a mention – the aliens were superbly designed, being believably not of this world while still being realistic. The aliens’ smoky, circular writing style – which plays a major part in the film, since it’s the main way they figure out to communicate – looks gorgeous, both in the designs and in the way they move. (I wish this was a more mainstream movie; I want a bag or a pin or something with some alien writing on!) A little bit of dodgy CGI on a character in low gravity does let it down near the end, but it’s the images of aliens writing their name for themselves in the air that really sticks with me.
You probably won’t be able to catch this one in cinemas – it’s last showing in UK Odeons is tomorrow, so I imagine it’s the same elsewhere – but if it sounds like your kind of thing, keep an eye out for this one when it comes on DVD.