Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy)
Synopsis: After 12 extraterrestrial spacecrafts land on various parts of the globe, linguist Louise Banks is asked to join the US military to help them communicate with the aliens to figure out their intentions being here. Maybe they just got lost and need directions? Maybe they need gas? All I know is this has nothing to do with that Charlie Sheen movie that came out 20 years ago.
What works: Denis Villeneuve is on a hot streak. He’s one of the better auteurs in the business right now. If you haven’t seen his previous flicks, do so as soon as you can. He’s also doing the Blade Runner sequel as well as helming the Dune re-make. After seeing Arrival, I’m actually excited for these projects despite having my reservations about both franchises. (and I cannot stand Dune) But he is a great filmmaker who I see as combining the styles of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. Like Nolan’s Interstellar, this was an emotional as well as very cerebral science fiction film. But more on the science and humane side of the story than say, special effect and action or thriller orientated side of a sci-fi story. And that’s mostly why this film should be remembered for, it’s simplistic approach to the “crisis” of having an alien invasion and not “let’s bomb the shit out of them!” but “I wonder what they want and let’s try to communicate with them.” It’s the anti-Independence Day type of movie. It’s a very intellectual and thought-provoking type of movie and I applaud them for that. I don’t think it should win best picture but it’s a solid hit of a film. It’s somewhere in-between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in terms of tone. It also has notes of 1997’s Contact but nowhere near as sappy.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Runner were great in this. I happen to like them both and was glad they did a fantastic job playing nerds. The more I think about this movie, the more I feel this is a total Amy Adams vehicle. The whole movie revolves around her—We don’t even see the spacecrafts really, until she does. We experience everything through her eyes. I did think she was a bit downtrodden and too-meek-like but it didn’t take the enjoyment of her role away from me. Without going into spoiler-territory (YET) her being kinda mopey and sad makes sense for how they structure the movie. It’s hard to explain with out going deep into the details so I’ll save that explanation for later.
The story itself is reason enough to see this movie. I don’t think it’s that groundbreaking in terms of its main ideas being communication with aliens. Countless of sci-fi movies deal with either benevolent or evil aliens landing on Earth. But what makes Arrival stand out now, is it’s approach to that communication. Adams and crew interact with the aliens several times throughout the movie and the way the aliens speak is with some kind of smoke that comes out of their arms (the aliens are called Septa-pods, so they have 7 extremities) that somehow form a crude circle, kinda like a coffee-stain left on a morning paper. This is their language and Adams spends most of the film analyzing these circles as a way of communicating with them. It starts off with a lot of Tarzan-like talk “Me. Louise. Me. Human.” but as the film progresses she gradually starts to master the circles to know what they are trying to say. The conflict of the film solidifies this as a great movie by showing the scientists and experts having the patience for discovery and analyzing, while the military is skeptical, distrustful of the aliens and rushing the scientists’ results. On a global scale we have other countries doing the same thing while more hostile countries (i.e. China—surprise, surprise) lose patience, grow more fearful and by the climax, tensions mount when they want to defend themselves (and Earth) against the threats. I cannot say that this is an exciting movie, by way of thrills or action scenes. The most tense, edge of your seat moment is when Adams desperately makes a phone call. But despite that, this film is engaging, smart and in a era that we live in with our state-of-the-art technology but little real communication, Arrival fits the times and tone perfectly without feeling preachy or overly twee.
What fails: The hardest hurdle for me watching this movie was getting used to the lighting. Yeah. It’s a very dark film, tons of scenes in dim light and shadows. I’m not sure why this was filmed with such low-light but it’s a little tough on the eyes in some scenes. There might be a tonal explanation but I can’t think of it right now.
I don’t think I’ll ever be on a Forest Whitaker band wagon. He’s been in dozens of movies for over 3 decades and I don’t think I ever cared for any of his performances. Yet, he’s a capable actor, don’t get me wrong. I never hate his performances but I never love them either. He doesn’t have much to do in Arrival and he never really gets a character arc either. He’s barely needed nor remembered. At times he can be conflicting since he’s top military brass in charge of this operation, but there’s not really much conflict for our protagonists that hinder their motives. Adams or Renner always say the right thing to convince him or persuade him to their side. Again, this movie doesn’t need a mustache-twirling villain so this works for me. It felt very grounded in a reality I can comprehend.
If I had to nitpick anything it would be the lack of creative design. The spaceships all look like giant black contact lens that float a few feet above the ground. Inside the craft is all black and dark, looking more like a cave. The only light comes from the wall of glass that the aliens stand behind making them look more like aquarium animals in a misty atmosphere. The aliens looked like squid or just a hand with seven slender fingers. We don’t even see them closely or clearly. Like I said, these are nitpicks because these details are all irrelevant to the overall theme and story. If you’re going into Arrival thinking it’s like Independence Day then you may be sorely disappointed.
Overall: If there’s one genre that seems to be getting better in these last few years it’s certainly sci-fi. Studios seem to be taking on decent risks with original stories in the genre as well as hiring visually creative directors. Gravity, Interstellar, Ex Machina, Moon and even action-heavy hits like Edge of Tomorrow and District 9 have shown that the genre is alive, well and kicking with great ideas and visuals. The fact that Gravity and Interstellar were heavily nominated at the Oscars shows that sci-fi is getting more respect and recognition. I highly recommend Arrival to anyone interested in a great thought-provoking feature. You certainly do not need to be a fan of sci-fi to even like it. It’s a story of humanity, acceptance, kindness and understanding. Things we all need more of.
Score: 8 “Thousand Images of Ink-blotted Circles in this Film” (out of 10)
I’d like to talk more about the ending to the film which if you haven’t seen it, could potentially ruin the experience. So do not read on if you haven’t seen it.
I want to applaud the filmmakers on the tremendous job of the concept of time in this film. If you seen the movie you know that the beginning “flashbacks” were not flashbacks at all but the future. The concept of time is a tough concept to grasp outside of our own circadian clock and Greenwich Mean Time that we set our lives to. Once the concept of time and space is bent or twisted, even in a theory, it can be mind-boggling to understand. For me anyway. This film tries to use the concept of time to explain that the aliens came to Earth to bestow certain gifts to humankind so we, in the far future can advance ourselves to help those same aliens. I’m still scratching my head on this too. The aliens live in a dimension or place that the concept of time is not linear but, like their language, is circular. Frankly, this goes over my head. It’s fascinating to be sure, but I cannot wrap my head around time going in a loop as a concept. Does this explain Deja vu? Does this mean we repeat everything? Is it that simple or am I no where near the right frame of mind?
Did it hurt my enjoyment of the movie though? I’d have to say no. Because the film uses Amy Adams as the “time traveler” and shows us that she gets the gift (or understands it) of the alien’s use of time and uses it to save the aliens and the world by seeing into the future several times. She has visions of her daughter (which since we see her in those beginning flashbacks, we assume she’s in the past and now dead but she’s not even born yet) who help her solve some problems with the communication with the aliens. She sees herself having a future conversation with the Chinese general who wanted to nuke the aliens, who tells her what she told him to convince him otherwise. In the next scene, she then calls that same Chinese general and now knows what to say to him (in Mandarin) to have him stop the devastating action against the aliens. It’s a wild plot device and on one hand it can be seen as cheesy but also profound on the other. It’s no better or worse than the twist at the end of Interstellar depending on your sense of wonder and threshold of the fiction aspect of science-fiction. Adams now has to make a huge decision regarding her future life knowing that tragic things will occur and should she face her destiny or avoid it knowing what she already knows. It’s not hard to understand but not easy either. However, this is a very human dilemma and I relish the sort of philosophical question this seemingly simple alien invasion movie brings up. I did enjoy the film immensely and I would recommend watching it more than once to better grasp the conceptual aspect of the film.