October 2023

Arrival (2016)

arrivalDIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve

CAST: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg


Based on the short story “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival is the latest motion picture to dramatize an oft-theorized “first contact” scenario, and follows in the wake of Gravity, Interstellarand The Martian as the latest in Hollywood’s recent trend of “hard sci-fi” movies.  Among these kinds of movies, it’s a cinematic cousin to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and on the polar end of the spectrum from the likes of Independence Day.  Those looking for an action flick should look elsewhere, lest they probably be bored senseless.  Arrival is a linguistics lesson with bonus existential questions wrapped up in a slow burn, low-key docudrama that makes considerable demands of commitment and attention from a patient and intelligent audience looking for something to pick their brain rather than rev up their adrenaline.  Unfortunately, while its aims are admirable in some ways, Arrival gets so wrapped up in its own dry, professorial theorizing that as a motion picture, it never quite “arrives”.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a preeminent professor of linguistics but a lonely and haunted woman mourning the teenage daughter she lost to cancer.  Her expertise puts her at the top of a short list for Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) when twelve mysterious “shells”—huge cylindrical black spaceships that hover in silence just above the ground—suddenly appear at scattered, seemingly random points across the globe.  Joining a small team partnering with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise is given an urgent and daunting assignment: figure out the aliens’ incomprehensible language and teach them our own enough to figure out what their purpose is on Earth, and whether their intentions are hostile.  The clock is ticking; the aliens thus far, while allowing humans to enter their ships, are uncommunicative, and some world governments and individuals in Louise’s midst are getting itchy trigger fingers.

Whether or not you are satisfied with Arrival might depend on your level of satisfaction with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.  While the two movies’ premises are very different, they share a slow burn pace and a meticulous concern with technical details over action or pyrotechnics (in Arrival‘s case, apart from one brief sequence midway through, any kind of conventional “action” is almost nonexistent).  Both attempt to blend “hard sci-fi” with heartfelt human drama, though both are only partially successful at this combination.  Those who found Interstellar tedious and/or obtuse are unlikely to enjoy Arrival, and in some ways perhaps less so.  While Interstellar was fitfully-paced, it boasted scattered tremendous sequences, such as the passage into the black hole or the emergency docking, as well as at least one moment of intense emotion (the backlogged videos).  Arrival stays Earth-bound (unless one counts the recurring visits into the “shell”) and despite poignant underpinnings involving Louise’s repeated visions of her late daughter, is never as affecting, possibly because we don’t get to know the characters as well.  A movie that strives to teach its audience something rather than simply entertain is admirable in some ways, but Arrival gets so bogged down in its whiteboards and academic discussions about nonlinear orthography that those without a passionate fascination with linguistics or this kind of hard sci-fi may find the film a laborious chore to sit through, and characters take a backseat.  Elements of Louise’s ambiguous backstory, her progress in establishing communication with the aliens, and the increasingly anxious and trigger-happy reactions of both individuals and governments are intriguing, but the film resorts to a deus ex machina to resolve the building conflict, and the conclusion is rather anti-climactic.  For a movie titled Arrival, things never quite seem to “arrive” at a strong destination.

For French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, this is a change of pace from the gritty, critically-acclaimed crime dramas Prisoners and Sicario, though one that could be seen as a warm-up for his upcoming Blade Runner sequel/reboot.  Villeneuve captures a few striking images—such as the first full shot of one of the “shells”, hanging in eerie motionless silence over an open field surrounded by drifting clouds of mist—but while the spare visual effects are effective, the flat black featureless ships and the aliens themselves—seven-legged cephalopod-esque beings mostly relegated to shadowy silhouettes—are not very visually dynamic or interesting.  There is only one fleeting inspired moment, as the human visitors walk upright up a vertical wall en route to their first “close encounter”.

arrival2With the arguable exception of Amy Adams, whose Louise is a complex, troubled, but brilliant woman whose layers and backstory we only gradually come to understand, this is not an actors’ movie.  Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg provide adequate support, but their characters are cyphers, with Renner’s purpose being to do little more than bounce off of Adams, and Whitaker and Stuhlbarg relegated to the generic tropes of the military man who doesn’t understand linguistics and thus provides an audience surrogate for Louise to exposition to, and the hawkish CIA agent (Renner’s character in particular not being better-developed undermines the conclusion’s emotional payoff).

Arrival tosses the audience at least one mind-bending curveball, though nothing as trippy or obtuse as the metaphysical climax of Interstellar.  The movie, especially as it unspools its third act revelations, raises some existential questions about how we view time as a linear construct, and whether one would choose to change the course of their life if they knew the outcome ahead of time.  The phrase “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” sums up the film’s closing thesis in a nutshell.  In fact, the aliens themselves, in the end, are little more than a plot device to bring about revelations and decisions in the human protagonist’s life (maybe part of why the conclusion feels so anti-climactic).

I didn’t “dislike” Arrival, per se, nor do I object to brainy sci-fi dramas (I’ll take The Martian over Independence Day any day of the week), but I’d also be lying if I said I found it as compelling and powerful an experience as some critics have.  There are intriguing elements here, but at least to me, they remain half-formed and fail to gel into a whole that packs the combination of intellectual stimulation and emotional wallop that at times it seems to aspire toward (and which its cousin Interstellar at least occasionally achieved).  Arrival denotes a stopping point, but the film experience is a sluggish journey without a clear destination.

* * 1/2