Arrival – What is Your Purpose on Earth?

arrival 2.jpgIt’s always a tough decision. Do I buy a ticket to yet another dystopian, futuristic, science fiction bleak house of a film? Last year I bought one for Ex Machina, which caught me by complete surprise. Armed with that memory I decided to take a chance on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

The carefully crafted screenplay by Eric Heisserer is based on Ted Chaing’s vignette, Story of Your Life, published in 1998 and winner of several prestigious writing awards. Mr. Heisserer spent years going studio door to studio door, reworking the script at each turn. It was finally picked-up by 21 Laps Entertainment. Good call ladies and gentlemen.

Arrival stars the always cerebral Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a world renowned linguistics expert who, thanks to a hypnotic opening sequence appears to be damaged goods. She teaches at a university and is annoyed at how on this particular morning the cell phones of her students keep interrupting her class plan. All for good reason. Twelve bean-shaped massive crafts have descended from space and are hovering just above ground across the globe.

In short order, Colonel Weber, played with earnest calm by Forrest Whitaker, shows up in Dr. Bank’s office on campus with a recording of the voices from the beings inside those beans. She’s recruited along with Dr. Ian Donnelley (Jeremey Renner) a scientist, to enter the craft and try to communicate with the heptapods, labeled for each having seven legs.

Most of the film is about the process of trying to record and decode the heptapods, named Abbott and Costello by Dr. Donnelley. It is a arduous process that requires patience. Something the politicians and military leaders don’t have. The filmmakers inject bursts of how the other eleven sites are progressing around the world, as well as military-political aspects are influencing the mission.

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Predictable world chaos ensues. People panic. The military overreaches. Countries collaborate at first, but over time mutual distrust causes them to drop off the grid, keeping their growing lakes of data for themselves. As if that will save their way of life, while others are eliminated by the current disruptors.

Despite all those side stories the filmmakers need to deal with, they make ample time for the real stuff. Arrival is about learning, communication and above all understanding. Dr. Banks insists on focusing on the the basics to build vocabulary and understand syntax to avoid dangerous confusion later on. She and Ian work together and slowly decode the heptapod’s language and begin to hold primitive dialogue. Mr. Heisserer’s script demonstrates her reasoning.

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Her persistence and instinct is recognized by Colonel Weber, who allows her the space she needs to make a connection. Over time she removes her hazmat suit and lets them see what she really is.

The most interesting scenes in the film involve Dr. Banks’ encounters with the heptapods. She is able to show them she’s serious and respects them. Their speech is meaningless, but when they write, it’s art, poetry and meaning integrated in circular symbols. We realize that all new things require building blocks. The present cannot understand the future without them. In a way, Arrival is a parent / child relationship story. The heptapods and humans play both roles in order to make the connection and understand each other’s basic objectives.

Watching Arrival propelled me back to many other films that fall into this category. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. All thee films explored this fascinating and important theme of being an earthling in a world where there are non-earthlings. What if we’re not alone and what would happen when we found out we weren’t?


Arrival takes it a step further by intertwining the heptapods with the psyche of Dr. Banks, who has unusual powers of intuition for a human. Those gifts (or not) led her to make some decisions in her life which cast her into an relentless unhappiness. In the end she finds her compass and so do the heptapods. Each of their missions can be considered, for now at least, a success. It’s only the beginning.

The technical aspects of this picture are excellent. Ms. Adams stands out for her courage and ability to manage this overwhelming situation. The soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is hard to listen to outside the context of the images of the film. Works on screen, but is a bit repetitious.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score can be heard on Spotify.


I would recommend this picture not only for its cinematic craftsmanship but as a reminder that we live in a vast and mysterious universe. It helped me move beyond the hype-moments we see today.

Sunshine Cleaning – Film Review


Amy Adams as Rose
Amy Adams as Rose

Spring is typically drought time for Holllywood. It’s post-Oscar so studios are trying to squeeze as much out of their winners as possible, and pre-summertime, when the majority of box office is earned. So if you find yourself with a few free hours on your hands you probably don’t have the title of a film on the tip of your tongue. Happily it can be a time when smaller, independent films get some breathing room. 

One of these is Sunshine Cleaning. It’s the product of Big Beach Films, who also brought us the surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine. They had so much success with that picture I guess they decided to use word sunshine in as many films as possible. There’s a lot of common ground in both films. Much of the same emotional button-pushing, quirky folks, even Alan Arkin’s matter-of-fact, crazy schemes character.

I found Megan Holley’s script intriguing but unfortunately never quite exploited to its fullest here. The New Mexico backdrop was appropriately lensed in a bland and lonely manner, save one beautifully composed shot. But it is the textured and inspired performances by two emerging acting talents, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt makes this film more than worth the viewing.

They play sisters who are pushed off their emotional tracks early on in their lives. Ms. Adams is Rose the older, more responsible sister. She has a seven year old son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), no husband and is still in love with the high school quarterback who is now the town’s detective, and married with children. Rose was popular in school and top cheerleader. It was a time when she held sway over all the other girls. But that scene has shifted, as Rose now cleans homes to keep her head above water.

She has a lot of pluck and starts a crime scene clean-up service in an attempt to climb the next rung of her personal ladder and provide her son with a private education. Rose recruits her reluctant sister Norah, who lives with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), as a partner in this new venture. They stumble through their first few jobs but manage the tasks with enough competency to make some nice coin. They learn the ropes quickly, taking classes on how to legally deal with blood borne pathogens. Rose is given the idea of connecting with insurance companies to help secure leads by a friendly janitorial supply store owner named Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.).

Emily Blunt as Norah
Emily Blunt as Norah

On the surface the story spends time on the charades aspect two people somewhat in over their head. The filmmakers balance humor and tragedy in a unique and interesting way. But below the water line is a touching story of two sisters who found their mother in the family bathtub after she opened her own veins, a “do it yourself job” as Norah describes it, and are left with a psychological clean up of their own. One could argue that two people who had gone through that tragic experience would never do this type of work. But deep inside the story we find the DNA that shines a light on the fact that they are perfect for the job.

Norah has a very sharp edge and was infinitely more traumatized over the loss of her mother than Rose. She is touched by what’s left behind in those now empty homes, and takes it upon herself to track down the daughter of one of the victims. It is a noble act, but is done as much for herself as anyone else. Another attempt to come to grips with having grown up motherless.

There is a brief and intensely powerful scene with Rose and Norah as children. We see them playing in a lawn sprinkler just before and then just after finding their mother. One moment laughing and joyous, then in an instant joy gives way to confusion and tears. The girls were so stunned they could think of nothing else to do but return to the sprinkler, hoping that somehow the water might wash away the event. Herein lies the real meaning of this story and a peek inside Ms. Holley’s insightful writing. In the end, both women eventually come to terms with their emotional paralysis and take steps to move their lives forward.

Sunshine Cleaning is not destined to be a classic. But for those looking to see two actresses at the tipping point of maturity in their craft, this one should not be missed. Visit the official film web site here.

Photos: Overture Films