Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If Prisoners was a bleak study of vigilante justice gone awry, Enemy a tale of stunted masculinity disguised as a WTF doppelganger noir, and last year's Sicario a treatise on the American/Mexico immigration problem masquerading as a drug cartel thriller, then Arrival is what happens when director Denis Villeneuve tries to combine high-minded philosophical themes with the alien invasion genre. At its best, the film asks the kind of big questions rarely found in mainstream blockbusters; linguistics influencing the way we perceive reality, the notion of time as nonlinear, whether or not our fates are predetermined or subject to free will, etc. At its worst, however, it simply flirts with these ideas haphazardly; beholden to a procedural narrative which keeps the audience in suspense before unveiling a twist ending which feels like something M. Night Shyamalan would have tried before being backed into a corner after successive failures.
In keeping with his previous work, Villeneuve seems more interested in aesthetic pleasures than engaging with philosophical themes, and on that level, Arrival has a lot going for it. Bradford Young's cinematography retains a tactile sleekness; focusing on the symmetrical architecture of rooms, corridors, and especially the interiors of egg-shaped alien spacecrafts. Meanwhile, Johann Johannsson's metallic, rumbling score perfectly captures the unease of such a scenario, especially during the early moments where not much is known about the extraterrestrial visitors. Villeneuve favors slow tracking shots and tilting pans, effectively capturing a tone of somber coldness which accentuates the visual look of the alien pods which randomly appear over certain geographical areas. During the film's enigmatic first half, Arrival looks like it could be the kind of thought-provoking, cerebral science fiction we haven't seen since Christopher Nolan's grandly ambitious Interstellar. Unfortunately, the film jettisons its more intriguing ideas so that the screenplay (an adaptation of Ted Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life" by Eric Heisserer) can get to the narrative business of keeping us in the dark en route to that aforementioned "gotcha" climax.
Amy Adams gives a sensitive, muted performance as Louise, a linguistics expert recruited by the US military to help make meaningful contact with the beings inside the Heptapods, who look like squiggly octopi discharging inky fluid. Along with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise seeks to get an answer to the basic question, "what is your purpose?" What transpires, at least initially, is a story about a woman dealing with loss (her teenage daughter passed away from illness) that turns into a story about whether or not loss is worth experiencing if one has that choice to begin with. Narrowing the focus from epic to personal is a fine choice, and Adams is a graceful performer who can project both loneliness and curiosity, but the script traps her character inside a puzzlebox narrative which begins creaking under the weight of its own sleight-of-hand machinations.
Truthfully, Arrival introduces some weighty ideas--predestination, compatibilism, quantum psychics--only to use them as window dressing for a turn that's supposed to be mind-blowing and emotionally wrought, but instead lacks the kind of playfulness which could have made it more bearable. The problem is Villeneuve surrenders to the plotting here in a way which undermines his film's considerable strengths, keeping us removed from Louise's experience when we should be drawn into the mystery. In a picture like Prisoners, his penchant for gloomy ponderousness worked because he was dealing with a story about nihilism and rage. Here, there's an element of hopeful optimism and gee-wiz Spielbergian wonder that he just isn't able to juggle; culminating in a final third which grows increasingly ludicrous before it becomes laughable. An extended sequence involving a Chinese diplomat and a whispered sentence, for instance, is played with utmost self-seriousness; another indication that Villeneuve's grasp of this kind of heady sci-fi nonsense is much too literal to invite any reaction other than giggles.
This is all too bad, because Arrival features moments of pure cinema conjuring visual and auditory aspects of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick's catalog while still feeling very much like a Villeneuve project. Adams, meanwhile, almost saves the film from drowning in its own incoherence through sheer force of will. When she looks up to the sky in awe or stares into the murky vat of octopus fog with hope, we believe she's witnessing something extraordinary. It's a shame, then, that her character spends more time dealing with crippling visions of her daughter than working out that pesky Sapir-Worf hypothesis.