One of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is called “Darmok” and it is, in my humble opinion, one of the best hours of science fiction ever created. Forced to work together to overcome a mutual threat, Captain Picard and an alien Captain must learn to communicate without technology or any help from the outside world. There are very few special effects and just two actors for the majority of the episode but the simple, clever story carries the weight.
The new film “Arrival” could be a distant cousin of, and in some ways perhaps inspired by the tale of Darmok and Jalad.
Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor asked to help translate an alien language after twelve spacecraft appear at seemingly random spots across the planet. She teams up with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a US Army detachment, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to attempt communication with the new arrivals. The scientists, naturally, wish to learn about the aliens, their race and their technology, while the military and the CIA are more concerned about whether the newcomers are peaceful or here for a more sinister reason.
The story moves at a rapid pace and I found that, overall, the two hours passed quickly. This is intelligent sci-fi, not explosions and space battles but the acting is excellent, the story compelling (if a bit simple) and delivers some genuine surprises that enhance the story and the film’s overall message. This is much more a new “Battlestar Galactica” than it is “Independence Day” or even “Star Wars.”
While there are some clever and interesting visuals, at its heart this film is a love letter to linguistics and communication in an age where we take such things for granted. What if we were forced to look up from our phones, put them away and learn to communicate with those outside our comfort zone? Would we be able to make it work or would our mediocre efforts cause World War III? The film also compels you to look at your choice of words. We’ve all sent a text that has been misunderstood or used a word that accidentally sent the wrong message. What if you did that on a global, or even universal scale?
My biggest quibble would be with the sound mix of this film. The music, which serves the film well for the most part, is at times too loud (and I like loud) and there were times, especially during the early moments of the film where key plot points are discussed, where it was difficult to understand the dialogue due to the loud music and sound effects. I’ve never experienced sound issues at the cinema where I saw the film so I can only conclude that it was the mix itself but I will investigate again when I see the film on home video. This is a movie worth a second viewing, if for no reason than to try and follow the way the elements of the story are weaved throughout the narrative. Much like the films “The Sixth Sense” and “The Usual Suspects” there are clues and hints to the story’s resolution hidden in plain sight but despite these, I must admit that I was unsure of the outcome until it was revealed. I often complain about the laziness of some writing in Hollywood but this film does not fall into that category in any way.
I suspect that Captain Picard and Captain Dathon would enjoy this film.
**** out of *****
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Now playing in cinemas nationwide
Photo: Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in “Arrival”