Arrival is the kind of major Hollywood movie some sci-fi fans have been eternally asking for. It’s a story of alien vessels descending on Earth that doesn’t present itself as an excuse to blow up the White House, or immediately turn into a cheap thrill ride. Its main focus is on something technical (linguistics), and it doesn’t immediately turn into faux-mathy quantum-this relativity-that technobabble but instead lets it drive the plot. It involves nations colluding and high stakes, yes, but it also is consistently a very personal story that never loses sight of its main character. It leaves plenty of room for imagination while not resorting to magical excuses. But something’s still missing for me. Arrival is a sparse, thoughtful, beautiful film that I just can’t love, mostly because it’s payoff simply didn’t entirely work for me. To go on much further would be clearly spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the movie doesn’t cheat with any twists nor does it betray its tone. In fact, its payoff is incredibly affecting dramatically. While the viewer in me interested in human stories left satisfied, the world-investigating nerd in me felt a bit let down.
Arrival’s sparsity and humanistic elements come to the forefront immediately, starting with flashback’s to Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter dying young, and allowing the landing of the aliens to happen entirely offscreen. We only see what Dr. Banks sees, and only get a full-out effects shot once she’s brought in by the military as a linguistics expert. Twelve crafts have landed sporadically around the world, and while Dr. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to figure out just what they want, they must work with the other eleven nations while also staving off aggression towards the visitors both foreign and on their base. It’s timely that international mistrust plays such a large role here, considering the current nationalistic trend in politics, but Arrival mostly shies away from that form of commentary. It has more sympathy for the aliens themselves, and condemns those who see mystery and respond with fear. Alt-right-esque commentators make brief unsavory appearances, panic spreads through a literal game of telephone, and when Renner notes that they’re having “Coffee with some aliens”, it’s possible to mishear as something very politically relevant today.
For all that it has to say about how we treat those deemed “other”, Arrival is more interested in it’s sci-fi elements than its political ones. And while they don’t entirely land for me, they take big swings and hit home emotionally. A lot of it’s successes have to do with its score, beautifully subdued and often incredibly sad, and Villeneuve’s command of mood, painting the movie in a washed-out blue haze on Earth and surgically cold blacks and whites on the vessel. Its alien design is fairly minimalistic, with the gravity-bending trick seen in the trailers as its lone flashy moment. Otherwise, it’s content with its giant black obelisks of vessels, remarkable for their unremarkability. Amy Adams gives a career-best performance in the middle of a fantastic career, important as the movie rests entirely on her shoulders. No amount of disappointment in the end result can erase the fantastic buildup, and if you’re able to go with it all the way, the reward is memorable and touching.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Forest Whitaker
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)
Really, my only problem with the film is that its ending plays with causality in a way that felt a bit convenient. On a larger scale, I like that it’s willing to play around with a big idea like perception of time, but on a micro scale, the conclusion it presents us with is one where we have no free will. I’ve read elsewhere interpretations that, instead of choosing to perform certain actions in the hope of certain results, heptapods (and eventually Dr. Banks) choose whether or not to prevent certain events from occuring. This seems to open up a giant Grandfather paradox, which the movie never really addresses in a satisfying way. A many-worlds or timelines interpretation isn’t really humoured either, as then I would expect Dr. Banks would see visions of her life with and without Hannah. The fact that it leaves a lot to discuss is a good thing, and it doesn’t negate the fantastic buildup and film-making nor the dramatic impact of the finale, but it doesn’t feel like it fully explores the ramifications of its twist.