The Good: Decent performances, Good concept, Moments of realism, Sound editing/effects
The Bad: Pacing, Some forced character aspects, Soundtrack
The Basics: Arrival is a high-concept science fiction film that works hard to get where it is going and, in the process, makes an ambitious movie that is mostly satisfying.
For the last three years, Oscar Pandering Season has included a serious contender for some of the big awards that is preoccupied with space travel. This year, the niche is being filled by a movie that explores what might happen if extraterrestrials came to Earth - and it has been some time since a film like that has been a contender. The film is called Arrival and while it has science fiction elements in the form of alien ships coming to Earth, it is skewed definitely toward being a character drama.
Arrival is reminiscent of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode "Darmok" (reviewed here!), where the principle adversary is language. The mood of Arrival is ponderous and cerebral, which helped get Interstellar (reviewed here!) an Oscar nod, but makes for a slow film that takes a lot of faith for the viewer to invest in. And the faith the viewer puts in is largely rewarded, though the journey is not as exciting as the previous space-related films that have been contenders.
Opening with Dr. Louise Banks experiencing loss as her daughter's brief life is cut short, Banks finds herself teaching on the day alien ships start hovering around the Earth. Twelve ships appear on Earth and shortly thereafter, Dr. Banks is approached by Colonel Weber, who brings her an audio file that he needs translated. The audio file contains an interrogation by U.S. personnel and indecipherable answers from the visiting extraterrestrials. Banks is hired by the U.S. government to try to figure out why the aliens have come to Earth by deciphering their language. Banks is paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly to decipher the alien language and give the aliens mathematical problems to build an understanding of their technological levels.
Banks quickly learns that oral communication between humans and the heptapods is impossible, but that written communication has some chance for success. Communicating with teams in other nations who are working on deciphering the same linguistic problems, Banks and Donnelly quickly learn that worldwide tensions are on the rise when multiple teams reach the conclusion that one of the words that the aliens are using at multiple sites is "weapons." Banks continues to be plagued by visions of her daughter while she works with the hectapods, while tensions within the military rise over what some extremists believe is an impending threat. After an attack on the Montana ship, Donnelly recognizes that some of the symbols the aliens are writing with relate to time. Reopening communications with the heptapods allows Banks to try to understand both the aliens and what is happening with her, but when the Chinese prepare to attack one of the ships over China (fearing that they will attack, not knowing Donnelly's time theory), Banks must figure out how to convince the Chinese to back down.
Arrival is one of the rare films where the payoff is worthwhile, though the process to get there is not overly engaging. While the mystery surrounding Banks and her daughter is not incredible, the mechanism by which Banks works to save the world with the Chinese General is pretty incredible. The highbrow nature of the temporal concepts raised in Arrival are generally accessible, especially in a world where multiverse theory has been made commonplace through television shows and movies based on comic book sources. While the essential military conflict might be a subplot that comes in fairly late in the story, Arrival resolves it in an intriguing and well-conceived way.
The temporal mystery surrounding Hannah, however, guts the Dr. Banks character in many ways. At the outset of Arrival, Banks is standoffish and inaccessible as a character. That makes some sense if she is suffering the loss of her daughter. But the emotional ramifications of Banks losing a romantic relationship and a daughter working backwards in time is presented in a far less compelling or interesting way. As a result, much of Amy Adams's performance is good for the moments of the character working, but not particularly good for the moments where she is portraying a human being.
In a similar fashion, Arrival has incredible sound effects and sound editing, but a terrible soundtrack. The alien ships and the aliens use sound waves to repulse themselves above the ground and to communicate, so each time one of the alien "shells" is on screen, there is a booming sound that vibrates through the viewer. The sound effect is cool and the heptapod's language is similar. Arrival employs a dramatic soundtrack, too, though, and that blends poorly with the sound effects for the alien speech and the ship sounds. In many ways, Arrival might have worked better to contrast the sound effects with the stark reality of no musical accompaniment to make it resonate better.
Jeremy Renner is fine as Dr. Donnelly, though his romantic subplot with Adams's Banks is painfully generic. Forest Whitaker is equally good as Colonel Weber, though the character is presented as a pretty generic military officer, without much in the way of depth and shading.
Arrival realistically paints the potential of an alien encounter and the inherent difficulties with humans attempting to understand them. The film gets very right the human instinct to leap to a worst-case scenario and leap to military action, but the resolution is a refreshing change from the action adventure blockbuster science fiction films, which tend to prioritize violence over reasoning. In that way, Arrival is very successful; but for coming together in a fully entertaining, well-rounded, well-conceived way, Arrival is more average than exceptional.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Whole Truth
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© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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