Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (2016)

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Amy Adams in Arrival. Image source: youtube.com

I’m generally not a sci-fi guy. I’m not good at picking apart logic or analyzing Real Science against that which is the stuff of creative writers’ dreams. Following math, science was my worst, most dreaded subject in school.

But maybe there’s something to the old Vonnegut adage, espoused by his fictional surrogate, Kilgore Trout, in Breakfast of Champions (I think): “As a writer of science fiction, I know very little about science, but everything about fiction.”

For the most part, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival isn’t aiming for the type of cerebral one-upmanship that makes me hate stuff like Primer so much.

It’s mainstream, but not bad mainstream. But I’m also questioning whether it’s really as great as everyone seems to think.

The revelations of Eric Heisserer’s script (adapted from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”) come out of narrative necessity, but still bear the hallmarks of the twist-based plots that inform many films today. I don’t have a problem with twists, especially when they are well-integrated and help enrich the facets of story and character that preceded it. There are times, though, when twists serve as nothing more than ridiculous, out-of-left-field “saves” in movies without a single creative facet, or disastrous decisions that cheapen everything that came before.

I viewed Arrival on November 20, and am still not sure how I feel about it. I’m also not altogether certain that everything in the third act adds up.

I gotta hand it to Villeneuve, though: for as much as he enjoys tackling unconventional material, he has managed to secure wide releases for most of his films (including Prisoners and Sicario). He’s one of the most interesting mainstream directors working today, and enjoys plumbing moral gray areas while achieving reasonable narrative closure (most filmmakers usually opt for one or the other).

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Awaiting the arrival in Arrival. Image source: traileraddict.com

Arrival is a conundrum. What at first feels straightforward – bland, almost – gives way to the realization that neither we nor the characters know what we think we know. Louise (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist haunted by personal loss, is called upon by the military (led by Forest Whitaker) to investigate the sudden appearance of a floating, monolith-like “pod” in the Montana countryside; she is joined by scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to investigate, and find the answer to a lone question: “What is your purpose on Earth?” The answer to this question drills down into the building blocks of language and communication, and one of the plot’s central themes is how words and ideas can be all too easily misinterpreted in the face of extraordinary circumstances (something an English-major-geek like myself relished quite a bit).

The storytelling is compelling enough, and imbued with Villeneuve’s usual confident (and symmetrical; always symmetrical) scene compositions. The way he permits the viewer to experience things with the characters – instead of tossing out some lazy exposition – is admirable. A great instance of this is when Louise, Ian, and some of the military men – decked out in complex Hazmat suits – enter the pod for the very first time. Through subtle camera work, Villeneuve makes the experience claustrophobic, vertiginous, and exhilarating all at once. Similarly, the slow reveal of the aliens themselves is mysterious, shocking, and wondrous.

Overall, though, the film is a bit too deliberate for its own good. Arrival‘s emotional component is certainly present, but undernourished, relegating characters’ motivations and mental states to briefly-glimpsed flashbacks. When the reason for this is revealed, I found the explanation somewhat disappointing; an instance of the plot needing to fall into a specific configuration to justify the twist’s “value.”

It’s mechanical, in other words, and while the film puts considerable stock into the perseverance of the human spirit in a non-cloying way, it ultimately undermines the efforts of the cast. Adams is compelling as a haunting, withdrawn character tasked with an immense undertaking (the struggle of any college humanities professor locking horns with bureaucracy); and Renner is fine as her science-fixated foil. Whitaker lends his formidable physical presence to the mission commander, but feels underused in an obligatory stock role (for what it’s worth, the conflicts he faces as the middleman between scientific establishment and the military-industrial complex are palpable).

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10