We come in peace? In peace we come? Peace we come in? They all mean different things! Out of nowhere, large opaque oblong spacecrafts come out of the sky, hovering over 12 cities across the world. They look threatening, so they had to have come to bring destruction to Earth. But, they just hover there, idly…
But idle cannot be assumed to completely mean peaceful. The fact of the matter is, someone needs to figure out what the point is of these extraterrestrials’ Arrival. That task primarily falls to linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). As both soon figure out, these beings operate with a higher sense of knowledge and communication than we do. Perhaps it isn’t them they should be concerned about, but rather, whether all parties across the world can collaborate with each other to figure out the meaning of their arrival.
Few directors have had the critical success that Denis Villeneuve has experienced. Not counting Incendies (a film I so desperately need to see), he has helmed some of the best films of this decade in a relatively short time period with Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario. He’s hit must-see status…even with a weaker offering in Arrival.
Don’t take that opener as disdain for Arrival. This is still a good movie, one in which Denis Villeneuve has firmly cemented himself as appointment viewing, up there with the likes of Christopher Nolan , David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. After delving into abduction, surrealism, and the cartels, the director tackles humanity and cooperation this time around. This is actually the first surprise—rather, misdirect—of Arrival.
Despite having obvious elements of the science-fiction genre, it can be easily argued that Arrival isn’t much of one as a whole. Which is perfectly OK. The study of linguistics and how each and every culture can interpret meaning differently is fascinating, and it is an idea that is rendered wonderfully from a visual and auditory sense. If one ever wanted to see what a Rorschach test looked like on the silver screen, Arrival is probably the closest movie to capturing that. Arrival isn’t as striking as Sicario or as bizarre as Enemy, but even being more minimalist, there’s a tension (Villeneuve truly knows how to wield a camera to show this) that exists from the jump to the end of the second act. It only helps that the wonderful Johann Johannson provides moody musical cues that get at the extraterrestrial aspect of the story.
So Arrival, script source material taken from the novella Story of Your Life, is undoubtedly cerebral. Where it falters, for yours truly at least, is tugging at the heartstrings. The rest of this paragraph can essentially be summed up as the super basic statement “It just didn’t do it for me,” but I’ll try to elaborate without spoiling. Perhaps I have no one else to blame but myself for expecting something that wasn’t there. It just feels that, however, something else could have, should have, been there. For all of the tension that is generated in the the initial acts of the movie, the reveal has sort of a flat feeling tied to it. It’s at this point when Arrival moves into full on heartfelt drama. Drama that, while structurally sound when held under a microscope, is a little uninteresting.
There are three performers billed on the movie’s poster, but one that gets all of the good material. That one being Amy Adams, who is always a captivating presence. The biggest reason why the cast works is that they are easy to buy into as their roles. All of Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker possess roles moreso than meaty characters (though Adams figuratively gets a full character circle, if you will), but this is a feature that requires actor and actress to be believable in delivering theories, calculating math, and delivering orders. When the three or some combination of the two are on screen together, they all work well with each other and the dialogue is worth listening to.
At the very least, Arrival is worth a watch, not just for the impressive direction, but because it is unique, and films like this should be supported regardless of genre. Even with yours truly ultimately feeling a tad underwhelmed with the story aspects and endgame of this film, if it wasn’t clear before, it’s crystal clear now that Denis Villeneuve has arrived as a top-level filmmaker.
Photo credits go to vox.com, nerdreactor.com, and rollingstone.com.
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