Arrival and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Well this is another movie that just kind of snuck up on me. Apparently we’re not supposed to know movies are coming out unless they’re part of a franchise or have talking animals in it. The thing is that had I known about this more than a week before it came out, I probably would have gotten really excited to see it as it’s directed by the same guy who did Sicario which was one of my favorite movies of last year. That, and hard sci-fi is usually an easy sell for me, so maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to throw this trailer in front of that new Independence Day movie or something. Anyway, does this in-depth examination on the problems with communicating not only work as a scientific procedural but as a badass alien flick, or is all the moody imagery and themes about humanity’s inability to effectively talk to one another just a cover for a mediocre slog? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with a montage as we see Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) give birth to her daughter Hannah and watch her grow up and die due to some sort of illness. After that uplifting introduction, we see Dr. Banks go back to work (presumably some time has passed since the funeral) where she’s a professor of Linguistics at… some college. Unfortunately, it JUST SO HAPPENS that aliens have started landing all over the planet in these giant spaceships that are referred to as Shells, but always looked like black contact lenses to me. Because she’s so good at what she does, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) brings her to one of the landing sites to see if she can help them understand the alien creatures inside. Those two, along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who is a theoretical physicists need to work together to get these aliens talking or else the world governments, especially a Military leader in China General Shang (Tzi Ma), get too antsy about the shells just hanging around and start firing at them. Can this rag tag group of smart people unlock the secrets inside of these spaceships and prevent humanity from destroying them and possibly themselves in the process? Just what exactly do these aliens want, and why are they just hanging around instead of doing something productive? Seriously, they mastered light speed travel, but they couldn’t figure out a way to communicate with the primitive species BEFORE parking their giant spaceships!?
Arrival takes itself WAY too seriously, much like Villleneuve’s other film Sicario, but I felt it was at least somewhat inappropriate here as opposed to that movie to be so overwhelmingly suffocating about everything when the subject matter at hand involves aliens and… well a bunch of REALLY silly stuff at the very end. There are shades of 2001 A Space Odyssey in here which is absolutely a point in this films favor, but I remember that movie having just as much wonder and awe as it did dread and tension, and the fact that this film is probably ninety percent oppressively moody scenes feels like a self-imposed limitation to keep up the director’s EDGY brand when something a bit more hopeful about the world or interested in the idea of aliens as more than a plot device would have ultimately been more satisfying. Then again, it’s not like he’s bad at making overbearing films and it feels distressingly timely to be released RIGHT NOW, so taking the film for what it WANTS to do, it’s an absolute success; just maybe not quite what I personally would consider an entertaining and evocative movie.
There’s just something unsatisfying about sitting through a movie where no one is really having any fun in a situation that I would find eminently FASCINATING. I don’t have too much trouble believing that the world would try to tear itself apart over dubious misunderstandings, but the fact that the people who are RIGHT THERE looking at the aliens on a daily basis never really formed a sense of calm or even excitement over the possibilities of first contact feels a bit disingenuously dour. They couldn’t find ONE Brent Spiner type to go nuts over our first one-on-one communication with an alien race!? To a certain extent, Amy Adams fills the scientific curiosity role while Jeremy Renner attempts to be comic relief, but my problem isn’t that humor, levity, and excitement are COMPLETELY absent from this movie; it’s that there’s not enough of it, ESPECIALLY when the BIG SCARY ALIENS are just a couple of Squidward looking dudes.
Now to the film’s credit, I wasn’t exactly feeling this way about the movie until the third act when things when we’re supposed to get the payoff for everything built up until then, so let’s focus on what it gets right in the first two acts. The filmmakers make an interesting choice in regards to cinematography and framing very early on where Dr. Banks is very often the only person on screen; even in big open areas. Whenever she ISN’T the only one on screen, the camera still stays very tight and focused on her, even actively avoiding focusing the camera on characters who are actually talking in the scene so as to never leave Dr. Banks’s point of view. To the audience, this ends up making a lot of sense as the first thing we see is a montage over time where her daughter is born, raised, and dies of cancer… I think. It’s like the opening to Up, and like that movie it quickly sets up the pathos of our main character. The movie goes that extra mile to make the world around her reflect that sense of loneliness in the first act, and even when she goes to the impromptu military base that sense of distance from everyone else is still evident. Not only that, but I was REALLY liking what they did with the flashbacks to her child. Sure, it was a bit corny that memories of her daughter helped her discover breakthroughs to understanding the aliens, but the way it wasn’t presented wasn’t implying any sort of MAGICAL REALISM and instead felt like Dr. Banks calling upon her life experiences to solve tough challenges. These scenes are mostly present in the second act once the ball starts rolling on decoding the aliens’ written language, and it works for a lot of the same reasons that The Martian worked; in that it focuses rather intently on procedure, experimentation, and solving problems. Unfortunately, this is also where the tone feels the most anachronistic as there’s simply not enough levity or excitement about all these discoveries and instead Forest Whitaker is constantly, and without much justification, calling into question everything Dr. Banks does before then immediately relenting. Maybe these scenes were supposed to convey the constant pressure of the world government breathing down their throats, but I just got annoyed that the science train kept having to stop so Forest Whitaker can huff and puff before starting it back up again.
Now despite my issues with the dour tone throughout the first two acts, I was going along with it and was hoping that things will come together in the third act to justify the oppressive atmosphere up until that point. Unfortunately, this is where the movie goes completely off the rails and gets outright silly. I wouldn’t say that it’s a BAD direction for them to go in as it does inspire a lot of hope about humanity, but it feels completely at odds with what we’ve seen up to this point. It’s also not entirely well executed in my opinion, so while I did like that things were starting to get less angsty, it doesn’t make a lot of sense and isn’t put together all that well. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the big twist in here without ruining the rest of the movie, but it ends up raising WAY more questions than it answers and makes earlier scenes in the movie feel like a blatant bait and switch. Hell, it kind of calls into question the framing of the movie itself as scenes we THOUGHT we were seeing were one thing, but actually were something else, and the justification of this doesn’t make sense in universe and ultimately feels unearned. Sure, you can point to clues that indicated what was going to happen at the end, but the only way you’d pick up on them if the movie wasn’t… let’s say lying by omission, to obscure the twist. Even if we look at the third act outside of how it rewrites the previous two acts, it still doesn’t quite come together and feels… rushed maybe? For a movie that tried so hard to stay grounded in how this would play out with the technology that we have, there’s a really big hand wave that undercuts that hard work in favor of something that I GUESS you can argue is scientific, but is in reality (and in terms of how it works in the narrative) indistinguishable from magic. That point that I’m trying to make by butchering that Arthur C Clarke quote, is that introducing an easy fix into this kind of movie that prides itself on procedure and realism undercuts what was built up so well in the first two thirds, and I was that much less willing to forgive this movie’s faults earlier if this is what we were ultimately leading to.
Remember when Christopher Nolan made Interstellar? I get the feeling that Villeneuve is going for the same thing here, and while I haven’t seen Nolan’s film (shut up, that was RIGHT before I started reviewing these), a lot of the criticism there seem to apply. In both cases, we have a filmmaker who is known for eschewing joy and levity in their movies for tension and careful attention to detail but then they decided to make a sci-fi movie to try and change that perception. I don’t know if Villeneuve can do more lighthearted fare, and it might be too early to assume he can’t due to this one movie, but that feels like where his weakness lies. Sure, I may LIKE lighthearted and hopeful movies more than dour and grim ones, but there’s no denying that Villeneuve is good at the latter and that shines through in the first two acts. Sadly, it’s when he goes outside his comfort zone and tries making something I would enjoy more that the whole film starts to fall apart as he either doesn’t quite have the skill to make it work, though you might be able to pin that more so on the writers than his direction specifically. Is it worth seeing? I’m gonna go with yes on this one, as the parts that may not have worked for me are exactly what his audience seems to like about his movies, and the third act might connect with people much more than it did for me. It’s not one of my favorite films of the year, but I get the feeling this one is going to get plenty of attention come award season.
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