Who speaks for Earth?
If scientists ever succeed in making contact with extraterrestrial beings, who gets to steer the conversation? Indeed, how do we even have a conversation? Despite what Gene Roddenberry told you, any real aliens' command of English will be meager.
A major new sci-fi film, Arrival, deals with these and other frequently ignored matters. Its unconventional style is both understated and cerebral. This is not a shoot-'em-up alien flick; rather, the makers have emphasized empathy and character development, an approach that may disappoint middle school boys, but is refreshing for the rest of us.
The first thing that becomes obvious once the film gets into its second reel is that it has veered from the usual playbook for cosmic encounters. In nine out of ten films featuring space beings, the aliens - presumably cranky from a peanutless trip of hundreds of trillions of miles - take it out on the locals. A favorite amusement is to level cities and zap the citizenry. The hunt is on, and the peasants are the pheasants. Cue the computer-generated imagery.
That, at least, makes for a straightforward story line, and is an excuse for an alien wilding in which iconic buildings are the first to go.
But the visitors in Arrival aren't interested in giving postcard cities instant urban renewal. They've got some problem in their future that only our descendants can solve. Consequently, they're here to negotiate and play nice.
Unfortunately, there's still that pesky language barrier. A linguist (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) are brought to bear, seeking ways to converse with these squid-like guests.
There's a faint hint of reality in this, because honest-to-goodness academics have thought about how we might deal with the language problem should our radio telescopes pick up a signal from another world. Some scientists have proposed devising patter based on mathematics. My preference would be to simply compile a picture dictionary. Even a few hundred words might be adequate for simple conversation of the kind found in most dive bars.
In the film, this latter approach is taken and, gratifyingly, works out. The calamari creatures are soon spelling out sentences in their own inefficient writing style while bellowing like a sousaphone quartet. It's better banter than what Chris Columbus was able to manage with the Caribbean natives.
But even aside from the chit-chat, you have to admire the innovative way in which Arrival depicts its aliens. Central Casting's little gray guys, with their glabrous complexions, big eyes, and anthropomorphic build, have been jettisoned in favor of large, shadowy creatures who stay behind glass in their own life-sustaining atmosphere. Indeed, you might suspect that they share some evolutionary heritage with redwood trees, given their preference for a foggy environment.
Whatever they're breathing, it can't be put in tanks, 'cause these aliens never leave their spaceships. That's novel too. Imagine sending humans to the moon, but with instructions to keep the hatch closed and never, ever take a small step for your species. And unlike the interiors of most interstellar rockets, the ones in Arrival are devoid of flashing lights, computer screens, knobs, dials, white plastic, or any other geeky accoutrements. Their vessels are more spartan than Leonidas.
And then there's the aliens' peculiar conception of time that, like their writing style, is somehow circular. I had a vague unease that this probably violates fundamental physics, but at least it's something new in an invasion film.
One concern: While it's not a certainty that these aliens are sea creatures, that seems a good bet. After all, they have tentacles and a pair of arms that can mess up the furniture by belching gallons of ink. But these guys are big, and I figure that, given their unthreatening behavior, they're vulnerable to ending up as delicacies at Japanese restaurants. Best estimate: at least two thousand sushi rolls per alien.
How refreshing to think that visitors from another world have landed, and the cookbook applies to them.
Aliens have been the go-to bad guys for movies ever since the Soviet Union imploded, at which time humorless villains with Slavic accents were replaced by extraterrestrials marinated in mucus. That was good for Hollywood, as these computer-generated characters didn't argue about residuals. However, like many film fixtures, most aliens have become typecast and are vaguely similar from one film to the next.
Not here. Arrival dances to the beat of a different drum, and - because of its imaginative take on familiar situations - will still be buzzing your brain the day after you see it.