This review contains significant spoilers for the movie “Arrival”
If you could see the future, would you want to?
If you could have a child, knowing that she would die at 12, would you forego the joy of having her in order to avoid the pain of losing her?
These are a couple of questions that linguist Louise Banks (delicately played by Amy Adams) has to grapple with as she plows her way through a time-jungle in which the past, the present, and the future all coexist.
The film is the Oscar-nominated “Arrival”, a glorious science fiction story that weaves backward and forward in time and, in the end, encourages Banks to reconcile herself to the vicissitudes of life as well as its rewards.
As one of the world’s foremost linguists, she has been called upon to help decipher the hollow grunts and growls of space travelers whose rocket ships suddenly descend upon twelve sites on earth. As various nations hover on the brink of attacking the ships, as well as each other, Banks and her partner in this endeavor, physicist Ian Donner (a laid-back Jeremy Renner), painstakingly work at trying to communicate with the visitors. But the visitors do not speak and their written language consists of circles with squiggly appendages attached.
Eventually, after what appears to be months of work, Banks and the aliens, who are huge grey heptapods (seven-limbed creatures) reach a point of understanding and Donner manages to work out the written symbols that he says relate to the concept of time. He determines that the visitors are offering the gift of time to Earthlings so that Earth’s people will offer them help in 3,000 years, when they know they will need it.
Meanwhile, they leave Banks with the ability to see the future and recognize that her frequent visits with her dead daughter are not past memories but fast-forwards into a time yet to come.
This film, based on a 1998 short story (“Story of Your Life”) by Ted Chiang and adapted as a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, becomes a very complicated movie. But it is thoroughly enjoyable if you don’t try too hard to figure out exactly what’s going on. Or why.
Now flashback 65 years to an earlier science fiction film: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. So impressed was the public by this “heart-pounding” and “most inspiring” film (as judged by the critics) that it earned a Golden Globe “for promoting international understanding,” and in 2008 was ranked by the American Film Institute as the fifth best film in the science fiction genre.
It’s difficult to maintain a perspective on this film from 1951 in light of the George Lucas, CGI-drenched epics that have evolved since then. It’s rather like trying to relate to a public that was traumatized by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio drama “The War of the Worlds.”
In this vintage film, a “spaceman” in a flying saucer has traveled 250 million miles (that’s miles, not light years) to bring a message and a threat to the squabbling nations on Earth. As played by an incredibly wooden Michael Rennie, this “visitor” decides to learn more about the people on this planet by moving into a boarding house inhabited by a wide-eyed Patricia Neal and her precociously adorable son (Billy Gray).
Insisting that he has come in peace, he reveals that he has a message that must be delivered to all the world’s leaders simultaneously. Denied the possibility of those leaders coming together, Klaatu (Rennie) goes to the home of “the greatest living person,” science Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), and asks him to gather all the scientists of the world to hear his message.
This done, Klaatu reveals that he represents an “interplanetary organization that created a police force of invincible robots to patrol the planets and preserve the peace.” This organization has safety concerns now that humanity has developed rockets and “a rudimentary form of atomic power.”
“It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet,” he says, “but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us, and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”
To that I can only add the film’s immortal mantra, “Klaatu barada nikto!”