To Serve Mankind

The idea of first contact with an alien species has been a part of science fiction for as long as there has been science fiction. H.G. Wells raised the specter of invasion and conquest with “War of the Worlds” in 1898, and that strain has continued through books and movies since, especially with the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and on up through Independence Day. On the other side, books and movies have had the aliens as an advance race come to help us, such as in the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (not the awful remake) and through to Contact. The Twilight Zone had one of its best episodes when it blended the ideas in “To Serve Mankind.” If you somehow haven’t seen that episode, I won’t spoil it. This weekend marks the arrival of Arrival, a new entry in that genre, and one of the best ever.

The movie was directed by Denis Villenueve, who has fast become one of my favorite directors. He did two of the best thrillers in recent years, Prisoners and Sicario. Now he does for science fiction what he did for thrillers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer is known mostly for horror movies such as Lights Out, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Here, working from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, he’s crafted a screenplay that thrills but also completely engages your intellect. Think of it as a more intelligent version of Contact.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a college professor whose specialty is linguistics. After a short introduction, the story begins on the day monolithic black spaceships appear in twelve locations around the world. Each country with a ship deals with them independently, though at first they share some data. After a few days, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) comes to her office. He’d worked with Banks to translate chatter from a Farsi terrorist cell, but now he wants her to figure out why the visitors have come to earth. She refuses to give him a quick answer and points out the pitfalls of language. Instead she says they must create a full lexicon for communication to avoid possibly catastrophic misunderstandings.

Weber leaves, but returns later and agrees to let Banks work her way. On the helicopter to the American site in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s in charge of the team making contact. The military has placed a wide perimeter around the ship which floats just above the ground. Nearby they’ve created a camp for investigating the aliens that’s more like a temporary military base. There’s a strong element that believes the ships in the sky are not there on a peace mission. As one character say, if they came in peace, “why did they bring twelve ships?”

Villenueve doesn’t rush the story. He gives it plenty of time to grow and breathe and sink into your mind until you’re completely involved. The portrayal of linguistics is fascinating and deep, as is the whole science of the film. Villenueve worked with scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram to ensure all the technical aspects of the story are correctly depicted.

Amy Adams is the lynchpin of the film. It’s through her eyes that we see what’s happening, and she gives one of her best performances ever. Both Renner and Whitaker are first-rate in their embodiments of their roles, as are several character actors such as Tzi Ma as Chinese General Shang and Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern.

Normally it’s dangerous to use the word “classic” when referring to a movie that has only been released this weekend. But Arrival is not a normal movie. I saw it with my adult son, and after the credits finished I asked him for his reaction. His first two words: “Holy crap!” While you’ll each have your own words for expressing reactions, it’s safe to say they’ll be along those lines. See this movie.

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