“Arrival” marks the next in a series of “intelligent” sci-fi movies that lands somewhere in between being a blockbuster and a bona-fide think-piece. This tradition includes movies such as “Contact,” “Interstellar” and “District 9.” This is some pretty good company to be in, and I think “Arrival” is a leader of this pack.
“Arrival” is the next piece of work from rising director Dennis Villeneuve. You might have heard of Villeneuve before, his other films (“Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Enemy”) have all been excellent. What I like about Villeneuve’s films is that he always manages to strike a nice balance between character-depth and the actions of the plot.
Villeneuve has also recently been signed on as director for the “Blade Runner” sequel, and in some sense, I see “Arrival” as Villeneuve testing the waters before jumping into the deep end. I have to say, then, that “Arrival” is making me very hopeful for this “Blade Runner” sequel.
“Arrival” tells the story of Louise (played by Amy Adams), a linguist who is tasked with deciphering the language of the arrivees. These aliens are giant, talking knee-joints that flew down to Earth in a giant pebble. There is much more to the plot, but I don’t want to say anymore because the less you know going into this film, the better.
The film itself is based off the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang. It’s a cool experience seeing how Villeneuve and lead writer Eric Heisserer choose to adapt the original work—the story in the film is excellent. I do have some reservations with it though. These reservations mainly stem from changes from the short story that were made during the adaptation process. These change some of the sci-fi ideas in a way that doesn’t really make sense, especially when compared to the airtightness that was the short story.
Otherwise, the narrative of the film progresses naturally and expands in scope before ending on an incredibly personal note that will leave a taste in your mouth for weeks to come. I won’t say if the taste is sweet or bitter to avoid spoiling the movie, but any film that keeps you thinking about it after the credits roll is a success in my book.
We’ve gotten literally dozens of these aliens-appear-hovering-over-earth films before, and I was skeptical that this movie would become very generic very quickly. Fortunately, the script works wonders and not only somewhat faithfully adapts the short story, but also introduces some new elements to the story that only benefit the film.
One of these new additions that I liked the most is also the most cliché: the military. When the trailer was released, I was disappointed that the military, which played a minimal part in the short story, was going to have a bigger, and what looked like a overused, role in the film. I thought the role of the military in the film would be something I had seen literally hundreds of times before. Thankfully, I was very wrong.
If you’ve seen any movie involving aliens landing on Earth, you know what I thought the military would be like in this movie: a bunch of nameless, angry white dudes with their fingers hovering over the “launch nukes” button. In “Arrival,” however, these angry white guys are shown as reasonable, competent human beings doing their best under stressful situations. In a word, they’re human.
Another standout performance comes from Amy Adams. Her character goes through a lot of emotions and Adams mainlines these emotions straight to the audience. Again no spoilers, but Adams’s performance is one that definitely improves with repeated viewings.
Then there are the aliens. These aliens were pretty cool, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed. They just felt so bland to me. Their language sounds cool and their written words look unique and they’re cool to watch during the film, but in retrospect, everything else about them boils down to gray, featureless and round.
Even the alien ships reflect this. The ships look like they’d be perfect for skipping across the surface of the water, but floating rocks aren’t really threatening or even alien. Compare this to the engineers from “Alien,” who have a similarly gray and rocky aesthetic, and you’ll see that there’s a way to do gray design without sacrificing detail.
Now onto the elements I didn’t like about the movie. This movie has a subplot that mirrors “The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button” where you will watch a fully grown man regress before he disappears before your eyes. Of course, I’m talking about Jeremy Renner and his character Ian, the experimental physicist.
Renner starts the movie firing on all cylinders, portraying a truly realistic awkward, nerdy scientist who actually feels authentic instead of a good-looking actor trying to come off as awkward. But as the movie goes on, Renner’s character—and his performance—becomes more and more generic until he could be switched out for any other charismatic lead male actor in a sci-fi film with aliens. One of his lines towards the end of the film will make you cringe. I’m not saying that awkward people can’t or shouldn’t be funny, but Renner pulls a pretty complete 180 throughout the film.
Other than this performance and some odd choices made during the adaptation process, I don’t have any other glaring complaints with the film. Overall, if you’re a fan of science-fiction films, go see “Arrival.” It is well made, well executed and will leave you thinking about the ideas it presents. More importantly however, it ties these impersonal ideas with a human story in the vein of some of the best sci-fi movies out there.