It may be a stretch to call “Arrival” a science fiction movie. It certainly borrows from the genre’s themes and presents itself in the guise of an alien invasion movie. But at its heart it is something closer to a meditation on faith, loss, and the challenges of the tough decisions life presents us. There is an allegory at work that never fully materializes throughout the film as director Denis Villeneuve tries to balance an atmospheric “idea” piece with the façade of invasion drama. It hits more than it misses, even if this isn’t the film you will go to the theater expecting to see.
When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team–lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams)–are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers–and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity. (Synopsis by 21 Laps Entertainment)
There is a fair and valid complaint that Villeneuve favors style over substance—or more accurately, mood over plot. “Arrival” is a film deeply set in the feelings of the characters, and atmospheric swirling mists and soft-filtered, jumbled experiences leave the audience with more questions than answers. This isn’t a bad thing when presenting subject matter in an esoteric manner. For most of the film, focusing on the emotions of the characters against the atmospheric backdrop provides artistic engagement that would be lacking if either existed alone.
The film opens with Dr. Banks’ daughter shown from birth through a tragic, early death due to cancer. This is then largely pushed aside to show a resilient Banks living a Spartan lifestyle while lecturing at the local college when the alien crafts land. Banks is quickly pulled into the effort to decode the alien’s language. Inevitably, world leaders become paranoid of each other and close down communication amid infighting between different groups working to understand the aliens’ purpose. The film gets bogged down in the typical plot tropes during this second act, but partially rebounds for the final act where the different plot threads almost, but not quite, come together in the larger plot arc of love, loss, and memory.
Thematically, the loss of Banks’ daughter is shown in cut shots at the beginning of the film and then increasingly reoccurs as the main plot lines manifest, creating a fumbling attempt at linking the alien arrival to the arrival of Banks’ child. There is some vaguely overt religious tones thrown in as well with the 12 alien craft, a couple different takes on trinity symbolism, manifestations of time and destiny, and a touch of savior complex thrown in for good measure. Add in some linguistics theory and symbolism of the alien’s written language (it is vaguely womb-like, utterly unique, and non-linear time dependent, if that helps) and the plot becomes a bit of a puzzle of intention.
Back to the original problem of style over substance. While there is definitely an allegory invoked here between a mother’s choices for her child, living with those choices, and the internal life cycle of the aliens, Villeneuve never fully develops the plot enough to put those disparate ideas together. This is without even touching on the religious symbolism. It’s one thing to be intentionally obtuse (“Tree of Life”), but this comes off more as a lack of focus. The pieces are all intentionally there, but there is not enough effort to bring the ideas together. This is most apparent during the second act when the metaphors fall away to rely on more basic genre stereotypes to push the story forward. The force of Amy Adams’ performance is the buoying point of this writing gap.
Amy Adams is the best thing on the screen, even acting against Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Arguably, neither of the men provide anything more than background noise or an object to act against for Adams. Despite all the talk of this being the “film of the year” (it isn’t), the real award should be for “performance of the year.” All of the camera tricks and obtuse plot arcs don’t work if there isn’t an anchor. Adams is that anchor and keeps this whole thing from falling apart. Interestingly, the strength of Adams performance may be an indication of the increasing roles of female leads in these types of movies. “Gravity” explored this space (pun intended) as did “Alien” much earlier.
While this is still a great movie and worth a trip to the theater, this probably isn’t the movie some people are expecting. This isn’t “Independence Day” or some other action-heavy alien invasion flick. It isn’t even really a sci-fi film, despite the billing. The elements are there, but this is a story about the human condition of love and loss over time set against these supernatural elements. Go into it with open expectations and enjoy the ride.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. It’s film worth your money to encourage more studios to make more smart films.
THREE AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.