Film Review: Arrival (2016)

Considering how disturbing the past couple of days have been, I was probably fated to react viscerally to the first film I watched in theaters after the election. That film turned out to be the lauded Arrival, directed by the always interesting Denis Villeneuve, the man behind diverse features like Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario.

Arrival tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist, who is recruited by the US military following the mysterious arrival of several extraterrestrial spacecraft. Louise is burdened and isolated, shown to be nursing the pain of a deceased child. She joins an elite team that includes Forest Whitaker‘s stodgy, stick-up-the-butt Colonel Weber, a senior-ranking officer, and Jeremy Renner‘s Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist and power geek. They begin investigating a particular spacecraft that has touched down in rural Montana and must race against an outside world that is growing increasingly destabilized.

Adams’ Louise is the critical component in this endeavor, the one person capable of unlocking the secrets of the aliens’ language and discerning whether they are friend or foe. Complicating this, however, is how the experience begins to affect her. Louise finds herself increasingly disoriented through this brush with the extraterrestrial; her conception of time, of memory and language’s relationship to both is thrown into chaotic disarray.

Like any Villeneuve film, Arrival’s aesthetics are top notch, particularly its cinematography and musical score. While not quite the sumptuous visual feasts that Sicario and Prisoners were (both were shot by the legendary Roger Deakins), Director of Photography Bradford Young still manages to capture powerful images: ranging from the stark otherworldliness of the windswept Montana prairie, to the intimate, silhouetted nature of Louise’s lakeside home.

Returning to score Arrival is composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose thundering musical cues for Villeneuve’s Sicario earned him an Academy Award nomination last year. In Arrival, that same sort of bombast is also skillfully used, but it is paired with moving arrangements of string instruments that give the film a potent emotional energy.

This is also probably the first Villeneuve film that relies heavily on digital effects, a tool the director will need this year as he shoots his dubious sequel to Blade Runner. While the smooth, black crescents the constitute the alien spacecraft aren’t probably as complex to animate as say the Man of Steel flying through the air or any Pixar movie ever made, they do look neat, especially in many of the film’s accomplished long shots. They are also never ostentatious or shoved into viewer’s faces the way that every other fantasy or science fiction seems prone to do. All of this bodes well for Villeneuve’s continuation of Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott’s world, suggesting that, like his contemporary, Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve will probably opt to use CGI sparingly. Nobody is thankfully going to have to suffer through seeing a CGI’d Harrison Ford pirouetting about on a futuristic rooftop.

Unlike their production values, the scripts of Villeneuve’s films are typically problematic, and Arrival is no different in this regard. Adapted from the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Hugo-winning author Ted Chiang, Eric Heisserer’s script is certainly ambitious enough in terms of scope and themes. It boldly tackles a variety of big, meaty topics like the consciousness-building function of language, different perspectives on time and memory and the overall fragility of the human being’s capacity for collaboration.

The script is more of a failure when it comes to its characterizations. Louise is the only character that has a well-rounded and clear narrative, and Adams beautifully takes hold of the role, projecting a fierce intelligence and a quiet pain. Others, like Renner’s nerdy scientist and Whitaker’s cantankerous commander, are just sort of there; they are imbued with personality but not really an inner-life. Smaller supporting roles are even worse, rarely rising above the level of caricature. The worst example of this is the character uninspiringly named Agent Halpern, a role that utterly wastes the talents of A Serious Man’s star Michael Stuhlbarg.

With its impressive aesthetics, committed performances and thematic rigor, Arrival certainly stands as one of the more impressive pieces of science fiction released in recent years. It grapples not only with large topics like the fissures that exist between global nations and the hidden complexity of language, but also with the volatile universe of experience that exists inside every human being. It is on that last point where Arrival fails – not in an artistic way but in a moral one. The ending of Arrival attempts to connect its musings on how human beings structure reality – through memory, perception of time and use of language – to the decisions that we choose to make. It suggests it is permissible to go forward with a decision, even if you have advance knowledge of its tragic outcome.

This was the point that registered most viscerally with me while watching it, primarily due to how closely the screening followed election night. It shook me to the core. It made me think, once again, about how millions of my fellow citizens decided to ignore what is painfully obvious about Trump’s looming threat to America and willfully walk into the darkness.

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