“Each breathtaking visual composition is brought to life through strong acting, but the implication of the themes lying beneath is never quite met with the delivery that is promised.”
by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This movie works better the less you know about it going in. While this review does not explicitly spell out any spoilers or critical plot points, those who intend to see Arrival and wish to have a “pure” viewing experience may not want to read this review until after watching the film.
When they appear, they do so with a petrifying silence. They do not obliterate cities. They do not take control of the airwaves. They do not distort the electrical grid. They do not choose the most visible places. There’s a mountain range in Montana, the South China Sea, the barren wastelands of Siberia, and other locales like that. Their ships stand, elevated above the ground, oblong and towering above the mountains, perfectly ink-black, smooth, and quiet. After centuries of wondering if they, or anyone like them, would ever come visit us, and what they would do, and what they would want, and what would remain afterward, the answer appears to have finally manifest itself. These are aliens, and they have yet to make a sound.
This is the state that the earth is in at the start of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. In each country that has been graced with an extraterrestrial vessel – or “shell” – their government is faced with a series of impossible questions and options. The United States has dispatched something of a makeshift military base to its shell, with a cabal of scientists attempting to understand with the species within. Among them are linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Once every day, a small door opens up at the bottom of the ship, and a small crew of people can be lifted up into a wide corridor, where they can interact with the aliens through a translucent barrier. It is hoped that Louise can use her expertise to decode the foreign language spoken and establish a firm line of communication, while Ian can provide insight into their technology. However, the urgency of the mission becomes an increasingly pertinent factor, as hawkish nations begin to beef up their military resolve against the invaders and threaten to start an interspecies war. Sooner or later, it becomes genuinely questionable if there will be enough time left for Louise to figure out how to find an answer to the one question on every human’s mind – why are they here?
The best decision that Villeneuve makes in Arrival is to push forward a minimalist atmosphere, from Jóhann Jóhannson’s sliding string score to Bradford Young’s clean-cut, rectilinear cinematography. Interiors set in the “shell” are perfectly symmetrical, and characters move in and out of the frame in a purely vertical or horizontal way. This all plays cleverly over the angular, black-and-white production design of the vessels, and conveys the daunting scope and withering unknown therein. In the climax, when Louise begins to become more and more initiated with the aliens, there are sequences which are fully surreal and dreamlike, but the set is never overstuffed or even more than abstractly busy (fog, sourceless white light, and the outline of the creatures).
The second best decision Villeneuve makes is casting Amy Adams, who must balance her character’s base impulses and professional endeavors with the feeling that the fate of humanity is weighing partially on her shoulders. This is a role which only gets more heady as time goes on, when a set of enormously potent circumstances lead to Louise viewing the fundamental aspects of space and time in new ways, a philosophical epiphany which alters the entire course of the project. Adams is able to handle the part in amazing ways, softly foreshadowing later emotional palettes. Considering her, Renner, and Forest Whitaker in the role of an army colonel who is a supervisor of the mission, Arrival boasts a solid core cast.
Yet for all of the brilliance the film has to offer in those respects, it fails to present an organically evolved story. Based on “Story of Your Life,” Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay sets out a clear beginning and a complex finale, but is unable to pave out a sensible road to connect the two parts. Choppy abbreviation, such as a lengthy montage near the middle of the 116 minute movie, makes one feel as if disproportionately paced first and third acts led to a bled-out second. A moral message, which muses on the perils of overly protectionist nations failing to participate on the global stage and sharing their resources, is brought about in such jarringly frying-pan-over-the-head ways that it never blends into the plot as a whole. There’s an intrinsic degree of distraction here, as one is pulled away from the film’s assets by a script which struggles to explore its most complicated and tantalizing concepts.
On balance, Arrival seems destined to join the ranks of recent upscale science fiction like Interstellar, proving that there is a market for the genre beyond explosions and cheesy one-liners. Villeneuve continues his track as a strongly geometric filmmaker, bringing out stories through intense, rigorous setpieces. However, all of this comes back to expose the problem at the center of the movie – a clumsy execution of that same story, based in writing that isn’t quite given the opportunity to match up to its towering establishing principles. Each breathtaking visual composition is brought to life through strong acting, but the implication of the themes lying beneath is never quite met with the delivery that is promised.