Arrival is one of those movies that depends almost completely on a twist surprise that comes in the last half hour or so. That makes writing about it without ruining the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it particularly difficult. There are plenty of really great movies that are structured this way – Fight Club and The Sixth Sense are two that spring instantly to mind. There are also movies that are weakened by depending too heavily on that one surprise to hold up the entire film – The Village and The Forgotten are good examples. It’s too dismissive to write that Arrival is somewhere in between. If it is, it’s on the high side of that middle area, more intriguing than not. That engagement mostly comes from the beautiful and strange atmosphere director Denis Villeneuve creates for Arrival. His visuals are complemented exquisitely by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark, moody score.
The film concerns humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial beings. These lifeforms have positioned twelve massive, oblong ships at different points all around the globe, hovering a few dozen feet off the ground. The most interesting aspect of the movie that doesn’t involve the twist is the seemingly unachievable goal of establishing a meaningful, clear communication with the aliens.
Like practically every child in the U.S. public school system, I was required to take two years of a foreign language in order to graduate high school. If there is an exact opposite idiom to the phrase “took to it like a duck takes to water,” that describes me and foreign languages. “Like a giraffe takes to flying a zeppelin,” perhaps? Every lesson filled me with terror, because I was too sure I sounded like a fool every time I opened my mouth. Maybe it’s my notoriously terrible memory that made learning basic vocabulary in a strange tongue a constant struggle? The mystifying quality of a completely different syntax of another language still intimidates me completely.
I mention all this because it’s a good way to describe the central struggle of Arrival. The aliens use a language that has absolutely no parallel to anything humans have ever encountered in their studies. Their written communication consists of an unimaginably complex set of rings that resemble those left behind by coffee mug spillover. The U.S. military, which controls access to a ship located in Montana, have the seemingly impossible task to discover the purpose of the aliens’ visit.
Help comes in the form of Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist played by Amy Adams. Louise is a perceptive, no-nonsense scientist desperate to decode the visitors’ language. Adams gives her character a quietly mournful quality, because Louise is struggling with haunting memories of her deceased daughter, who died from cancer. Working with Louise is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, played with brooding and good-natured sarcasm by Jeremy Renner. Although his character is established as a leading physicist, it’s never really clear what Ian actually does. In a nice twist on the usual gender dynamics at play in many movies, Ian is relegated to merely observing Louise’s biggest breakthroughs.
One of those breakthroughs is particularly poignant and speaks volumes about the difficulties of communicating between cultures. Louise decodes one of the words used by the aliens as “weapon,” which sends the U.S. military into panic mode. Upon reflection, though, she realizes that the word might just as easily be translated as “tool,” since both words could be used to describe a host of different objects. It’s easy to imagine how such subtle nuances in the translation of one word might have led to whole wars within our own species, let alone an imagined meeting between humans and beings from the far reaches of outer space.
Forest Whitaker is hard-nosed Colonel Weber, the senior military officer in charge of the Montana site. Whitaker is normally a great actor, but in Arrival he opts to use an accent that he never quite gets a handle on. It slips between a Maine New Englander accent (think any number of Stephen King movie adaptations) and the geographically close, but distinctly different, Bostonian. It’s a shame, because Whitaker has done stunning accent work before, most notably as real life dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. His accent in Arrival is mostly just distracting. Imagine Ben Affleck in Fred Gwynne’s role from Pet Sematary.
Michael Stuhlbarg gives a good performance as Agent Halpern, the government liaison concerned with how much information the U.S. site exchanges with our potential enemies, namely Russia and China. It’s not the subtlest subplot, but it’s one that is unfortunately always relevant. Humanity often sabotages itself because we aren’t willing to cooperate with one another. It is resolved using some rather complicated machinations having to do with that plot twist late in the film, so I won’t ruin it here. I am interested to see the film a second time, though, just to find out if knowing the twist in advance enriches the film’s plot or unravels it completely.
As interesting as the ideas in Arrival are, the greatest strength of the movie is Villeneuve’s direction and Jóhannsson’s score. The two work in tandem to produce an otherworldly tone, fitting for the subject matter of Arrival. Villeneuve is a director that excels in staging grand, sweeping sequences that are deeply evocative. As in our first uninterrupted view of the Montana spacecraft.
The ship is in the distance, framed from inside the helicopter that Louise, Ian, and Colonel Weber are taking to the site; while off to the right, unimaginably huge, billowing clouds sweep down from a high plateau into the valley below it. The camera takes in a full 360-degree view as the helicopter turns to make its descent. All this is accompanied by Jóhannsson’s booming, creepy score. The scenes where Louise and Ian ascend into the spaceship with the help of a hydraulic platform lift are also accentuated with the dread of Jóhannsson’s strings and percussion.
Villeneuve’s special effects team also does excellent work. The movie achieves just the right balance between showing us the strange alien creatures and keeping them shrouded in the foggy atmosphere contained behind a huge glass window aboard the ship. The humans take to calling the creatures Heptapods due to their seven gigantic tentacles, which are connected to even bigger lumps of flesh. There is an inspired bit of digital trickery as the scientists and soldiers leave the horizontal, earthbound hydraulic lift and jump into the lower gravity of the ship, allowing them to walk vertically up the walls. The only time the CGI goes awry is a scene late in the film when Louise’s hair flows around her head in the low gravity as if it were underwater. The movie should get credit for scientific accuracy, but the effect falls into the uncanny valley, and distracts ever so slightly from what’s happening in the moment.
Arrival is a movie that has enough on its mind to satisfy fans of more cerebral science fiction, while having the kind of visuals that dazzle on a purely entertaining level. The twist that the climax hinges on is a bit overly complicated but doesn’t detract from the contemplative, enjoyable experience that the movie otherwise delivers.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Arrival is fun, entertaining, and more than a little moving. Despite it being all those things, I'm not sure it will really be remembered five years from now. It feels destined to be a movie that people will stumble on a decade from now, really enjoy, and wonder why they had never heard of it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I wrote in the review a little about director Denis Villeneuve's skill at orchestrating striking movie moments. This skill is on display in a movie of his I basically loathed, Sicario. There are several sequences in that movie that are intensely powerful, no matter how you feel about the movie overall.
- I made it sound dour, but there are a few light touches throughout Arrival. Ian dubs the pair of Heptapods he and Louise work with during their translation efforts Abbot and Costello. Adams and Renner have a natural, easy chemistry on screen that really comes across in the few moments when they are joking with each other.