* (1 star)
d – Denis Villeneuve
w – Eric Heisserer (Based on the Short Story by Ted Chaing)
ph – Bradford Young
pd – Patrice Vermette
m – Jóhann Jóhannsson
ed – Joe Walker
cos – Renée April
p – Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien, Russell Yuen
Writing a review for Arrival is a bothersome task, at least for me. This is a teasing, gripping science fiction drama that keeps its thematic animus a secret until the film’s climax, which, in my case, completely destroyed all that had come before in a blaze of frustration, ineptness and utter stupidity. So how, dear reader, do I write a comprehensive encapsulation of my experience for you to capitalize on without revealing the film’s secret – since that is really the fulcrum of said experience? Let me try.
Arrival is the latest film by Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer and based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which I have not read. Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist, who is recruited by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) – along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – to help the US government discern why 12 different alien crafts have landed on earth and whether they need to prepare for war. The pod they’re sent to has landed in Montana, an operation run by CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). It is Louise’s job to figure out a means of communication.
Arrival begins with a sequence of Louise having and raising her daughter Hannah, whom we learn dies of a disease at the age of 24. Immediately it is clear with Bradford Young’s lighting and Patrice Vermette production design that Arrival is exquisitely rendered. This is fairly typical of Villeneuve’s films, who here creates a first human-to-alien encounter in the film’s first act that is utterly absorbing. It competes with the works of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott.
Other typical Villeneuve qualities are not so hot, including his insistence on a single dour tone for all his films. In his previous film Sicario (2015) it comports with the characters, here it seems, well, forced. As a result, much of the cast doesn’t – and this feels like a rather odd observation – adequately convey the emotions required. All with the exception of Ms Adams, who is working reasonably hard here.
Louise and Ian spend months trying to calculate what the aliens want, all the while two thematic points are taking place: 1) The international governments responsible for the discrimination of the other 11 pods begin reacting in fear of an attack (led by the Chinese government) when they dissimilate the alien’s first message and 2) Louise’s consciousness begins to modulate when she starts thinking in the alien’s foreign language.
The film’s attitude to language is endlessly fascinating and a far more fitting piece of psychology than the one that is ultimately revealed. Without spoiling what the “twist” (ugh) is, let me delicately attempt to disclose its issues:
1) The idea of a “gift” is brought up with no explanation.
2) The film frames visions a certain character has without any dramaturgical virtue. It is purely manipulation on Villeneuve’s part and makes sense only rhythmically.
3) The film requires a great deal of the Ian character that neither Villeneuve, Heisserer nor Renner seem interested in obliging. His relationship with Louise simply isn’t earned.
4) The means of which Louise saves the day are neurologically ludicrous – though this is a sci-fi so I can probably forgive that.
5) The film also falls apart on the logic of all of this happening only to Louise. She and Hannah are shown having a conversation by a lake in which she professes herself to be some sort of anomalous genius before she reveals something to her. Why? Surely others would have gone through the same experience as she does.
I apologize that this doesn’t necessarily make for gratifying reading. I found the last few shots/lines of the film to be almost laughable in their obviousness. Those familiar with the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg will recognize some of the ideology that is on display, which is perfectly sound. But the kind of emotion the film impresses upon (which is thematically quite similar to Gravity (2013)) is not strong enough to hold up any of the paradoxes that materialize.
I would probably recommend someone to see Arrival because even though I don’t think it’s particularly high-minded, at least it is minded. But I’d advise one to check their philosophical agendas at the door. Maybe the polygon of ideological discort was Villeneuve's/Heisserer's/Chiang's point, but there's no real evidence to support that reading. I just can’t get behind what the film professes, pure and simple. Many have claimed its worldview as “beautiful” or “illuminating” and this, my friends, is a con. And a pretty infuriating one.