Movie Review: Arrival.
Arrival is stylistically bold and beautiful, a smart movie that has a few goofs, but is emotionally powerful.
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) is a Sci-Fi drama in the ilk of Interstellar and Gravity. It features lush cinematography, a sweeping soundtrack, and excellent performances that focus on interpersonal relationships. It is a film about small choices forced by big events, and of being able to change your perspective through empathy. As a drama, it is very well executed. As a work of science fiction, it has many excellent ideas, mostly thanks to Ted Chiang, whose short story “The Story of Your Life” served as the basis for the film adaptation. Unfortunately, many of those ideas are left vague and confusing in order to allow the film to reach its emotional climax.
Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist who has helped the military decipher enemy intel in the past. When 12 alien vessels, named Shells, land at random locations around the world, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) calls her in to help decipher possible alien transmissions. Alongside a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise meets face to face-ish with the visitors, attempting to learn their language. She has very little time to do so, as other nations view the travelers as potential threats and have issued a ultimatum that they leave or be fired upon.
Meet the People…
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner give excellent performances in this film. Adams, in particular, communicates her emotions through small gestures and expressions flawlessly. At no point did I doubt either actor in their role, and I’m not usually a fan of Renner. Forest Whitaker is solid, though he plays the gruff but intelligent commander with few frills. The rest of the cast is likewise stock characters, such that I never registered their names; a couple of fearful soldiers who want to shoot first and listen to right-wing alarmist radio, a government official who is dismissive and antagonistic of the scientists, and a Chinese General who is bloody-minded and ultra-nationalistic. They’re thin characters, but luckily the center of the story is always Louise and her relationships: to the aliens, to Ian, and to her tragically deceased daughter.
…See the Sights!
Director Denis Villeneuve has created a film that is visually impressive and stylistically engaging. Much like Stanley Kubrick, he juxtaposes long tracking shots of stark settings with lingering close-ups of his characters. Like The Shining or 2001: A Space Odyssey, much of the emotional heft of the piece is non-verbal. The camera creates a frame that establishes the tone. Often, the film uses odd angles or remains just off-center in order to create a subtle experience of unease and strangeness. In a film that relies on atmosphere instead of action, Villeneuve masterfully controls your experience with sights and sounds.
The soundtrack of Arrival is moving and compelling. The arrangements by Johann Johannsson are perfect, creating dread, awe, or sadness as needed. If you watched the film without dialogue, you’d still be profoundly affected. In fact, Villeneuve often uses harsh sounds like electric feedback, mechanical noise, even crinkling plastic and labored breathing, all to obscure the dialogue. In a movie about communication, it is a nice touch to make even the familiar feel garbled and strange.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Science
My major reservation about Arrival is that it overplays its drama and tries to tie up the resulting loose ends with some flimsy time travel hokum. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the end of the film…but suffice to say that Louise begins to have visions of events from the past and the future as she interacts with the aliens. This ability allows her to have insight into the coming conflict and try to stop it.
The perception of time not as an arrow but as a loop was part of Ted Chiang’s novella, but it was used a means for personal revelation and character growth. While it is also used for that in the movie, it becomes a deus ex machina to solve the increasingly dire global situation. In that aspect, it feels like a cop-out. It is a shame, since the film retains the fascinating study of how language shapes perception, which is central to the story. Arrival does have some great science in it, it just gets a bit wonky when it comes to cause and effect.
See It, Believe It?
Arrival is a beautiful movie, filled with emotion and power. I think it just manages to overplay its hand. The global conflict is overheated, and since it was inserted into the story by the script, it doesn’t interact organically with the science fiction elements from Chaing’s tale. If you can forgive one or two sins, though, you’re going to be rewarded with a film that can move you and make you think.