Review – An Alien Says What? (“Arrival”)

Isn’t that just like inter-dimensional space aliens to come here and not bother to speak our language. The nerve! But thanks to Lois Lane and the Avenger’s Hawkeye, we have a chance of understanding their lingo and find out what they’re doing here. Oh, and what kind of coffee they want from Starbucks.

It’s Independence Day revisited when 12 ginormous spacecraft, shaped like almonds, land in various places all over Earth. Folks go into panic mode, naturally,  and the government goes and snatches Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) from her teaching position. Seems this linguistics genius may be able to crack the gobbledy-gook that the aliens are speaking. So she and theoretical physicist and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are whisked away to Montana by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to ‘speak’ to the two aliens inside their ship.

Once inside (there’s a cool inverted gravity system going on), Louise and Ian learn that the two alien Heptapods (50-ft tall octopus-like thingys), nicknamed Abbott & Costello, “speak” using a black ink-spray that resembles a weird circular Rorschach test. Using his math and her language skills, they painstakingly come up a rudimentary idea of what they think they’re saying and try to communicate. Meanwhile, China has banned together with Russia and some other nutty nations to blown the aliens to smithereens should they seem hostile. Yeah, everyone’s on edge.

Finally, Louise sings out… she’s cracked the code! They’re saying, “use the weapon”. Uh-oh! What does that mean? Panic ensues and China goes into full-blown attack mode with the other crazies as Louise desperately tries to communicate with ‘Costello’ before it’s too late. And if things weren’t bad enough, she’s having the strangest hallucinations of a daughter that she never had… or once had… or will have. Is she going bonkers or time-tripping like Billy Pilgrim did in Slaughterhouse Five?

Anyway Louise, now fully able to understand their language by now, realizes their interpretation for the word “weapon” actually means “gift”. Yeah, BIG difference! They want to give us the gift of technology, not destroy us. Well, at least it’s not a cookbook, right? But is finding this critical information too little too late? Can Louise stop the alien annihilation? And where the hell is Superman or the Avengers?

With a promising, but an ultimately mediocre script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, The Thing remake), the set-up has suspense and a wonderfully eerie atmosphere swirling all around it, reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and really creepy music, like in Altered States. But after a great first act is established, the film dissolves to a snails pace, combining a standard SyFy scenario with a hokey deus ex machina conclusion and an anti-climatic ending that makes no sense at all.

Director Denis Villanueve does an admirable job here, given the potential script, by making the film watchable with beefing up the SPFX, plus his undeniable camerawork that was seen in Prisoners and Sicario. Adams is always a gift on screen, no matter what she does, and Renner is the charming sidekick that adds the humor factor because, let’s face it, this movie really needed it. Whitaker is underused and just there for the paycheck. On the plus side, at least this time around we get a movie where the the aliens aren’t humanoid, speaking English, and wanting to destroy the planet, like practically every other movie out there.                          


 Contact (1997)

“Mathematics is the only true universal language”. Trying to communicate with an alien race is alot like me trying to talk to my cat; it wastes both of our times. But this movie bent the rules and hypothesized what would happen if we really did make contact with an extraterrestrial race. What would they ask? What would they say? What kind of Starbucks coffee would they want?

Based on the book by Carl Sagan, this gripping, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining science-fact/fiction based movie weaves a beautifully told tale of a dedicated scientist and atheist, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster at her best) who works for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), constantly scanning the heavens for that needle-in-a-galactic-haystack radio signal that will prove life in the cosmos. She also falls for a Christian philosopher, Palmer Ross (Matthew McConaughey) while there. Although presidential advisor, David Drumlin (Tom Skeritt), thinks she’s wasting her time, Ellie gets support from billionaire S. R. Hadden (John Hurt) to continue.

Off she goes to New Mexico and their VLA (Very Large Array–a real original name, huh?)for many uneventful years… until… boom! A radio signal comes in that is a set of repeating prime numbers from the Vega star system, some 26 light years away! Holy %$#@!! Everyone is contacted, including the skeptical Drumlin and National Security jerk Michael Kitz (James Woods), who doesn’t like the fact that the signal contains a video image of the 1936 Olympics and Adolf Hitler. But, there’s more! Even more investigation yields an intergalactic mathematical blueprint to build a machine! What does this machine do? Speculation is that it will take a human from Earth to Vega via a wormhole when activated.

Naturally, Ellie wants to go, but because she’s labeled an atheist at a meeting, she’s out. However, after construction of the telepod, a crazed zealot (Jake Busey)  blows the machine up. Awww, nuts! But, Hadden comes to the rescue, when he reveals he secretly built another in Japan and only Ellie can go! Yaay! The very odd third act has Ellie going (via wormhole) to Vega, meeting an alien (her deceased dad–David Morse–in disguise), and coming back, but she never left the Earth and nobody believes her, except her Christian boyfriend, Palmer.

A damn fine script by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg and directed with incredible flair by Robert Zemeckis. This is one terrific movie right up to the point where Ellie goes to Vega and the ‘dream sequence’ begins. Then it gets silly and laughable where Ellie talks to an alien (her dad) on a mind-created beach in Florida. Those crafty aliens! Everything else is just spellbinding and told without any dumbing-down or wild side-plots. Smart dialogue, excellent casting, a stellar cast, and a near-perfect script.

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