Every year since 2013 we’ve had a serious science fiction drama for adults released in the fall. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and now, Arrival all feature visionary directors tackling ambitious science fiction projects. The primary difference with Arrival, is that it isn’t a spectacle. If you’re looking for a more dark and realistic Independence Day, this movie isn’t for you.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) gives us a realistic look at what an alien arrival could actually be like. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist hired by the US government to help translate the alien language. Her approach is logical, building an understanding of their language from the ground up. The language soon proves to be far more alien than the simple gobbly-gook from your typical science fiction film. The barrier between languages is more than just words, but in brain chemistry and the alien’s very approach to reality.
This may sound dense and confusing, but the film lays out all the science in clearly understandable ways. If you pay attention, there’s no reason to seek an explanation of the film’s plot, although it’s themes definitely warrant further discussion.
Unlike the aforementioned films it appears to take cues from, Arrival’s scope is incredibly tight. While the events have global implications, almost the entirety of the film takes place at a single compound in Montana where one of the alien ships has landed. The entire film is told from Louise’ perspective, further tightening the scope. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are here too, but the movie isn’t really about them. The movie is about aliens, global politics, linguistics and the possibilities of interstellar travel. But really, its the story of one woman learning to process her grief and come to terms with the limitations of mortality. Amy Adams delivers one of the best performances of her career, which by itself is enough reason to recommend Arrival.
Villeneuve takes his time in developing the plot and building tension. Too often movies feel like they’re afraid of losing your attention for even a second. Arrival unfolds at a deliberate pace, letting you engage the world and formulate your own ideas. Information is unfolded slowly, but never deceptively. The attentive viewer can start to make guesses at the ultimate direction of the film, but you almost certainly won’t be able to guess the entire picture in advance. This slow-burn lets the film get inside your head and create effectively tense moments. Once we reach the climax, the viewer is fully invested.
The climactic scene itself is the only area where I have real criticism of this movie. Paradox aside, the key exchange is a bit too contrived if not out of place. This was one part of the movie that reminded me of Interstellar (and not in a good way). Still, this movie is nowhere near as melodramatic or ridiculous as Interstellar and it feels insulting to make such a comparison. I have heard accusations that this film contains plot-holes, but I didn’t notice any, and considering how nebulous the term “plot-hole” has become, it could frankly mean anything.
Ambiguity has been a hallmark of Villeneuve’s film-making style. For this reason I was a bit surprised by how neat the resolution was. While it is a bitter-sweet ending, it is all wrapped up in a tidy little package with a shiny bow. The film is trying to ride the line between art-house and mainstream cinema, but ends up being neither. If you don’t pay close attention to the film, you will be confused for most of the run-time, probably become bored and list “plot-holes” that were simply things you missed. If you engage with the film, the story will make sense, but the reward at the end will be much the same as if you only passively took it in. At the end of the day, it’s just not that deep.
Whether or not I can recommend Arrival says more about you than it does the film. If you enjoy science, linguistics, or science fiction films that don’t rely on monsters and explosions, this movie is for you. If you’re a fan of Villeneuve’s previous films, you’ll probably like this one. If you’re looking for a spectacle, go see Doctor Strange. If you want something in-between I’d say wait a year. We’re bound to get another one of these movies in October or November 2017. I for one hope it’s more like Arrival than Interstellar. I don’t think I could handle another Interstellar.