Arrival (2016) 3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Nominated for eight Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing
IMDb’s Top 250: #174
Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict—Dr. Louise Banks
When aliens make contact in twelve different places around the globe, including Montana, the United States government hires Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a prominent linguist, to try and translate what the aliens are saying. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) and U.S. Colonel Weber (Whitaker), Dr. Banks makes major breakthroughs in communicating the heptapods; she begins understanding them but also begins having emotional flashbacks of her deceased daughter. The worldwide situation is thrown into chaos when Chinese and Russian authorities misinterpret some of the therapods’ communications and threaten military action against the aliens, and it’s up to Louise to save the day
There is one major problem with Arrival, plotwise, and it’s that it falls back to casting the perennial bad guys, the Chinese and the Russians, as the ones who threaten to blow the whole world up, and it casts the Americans as the one who are trying to promote peace and unity across global communication. We all know that if aliens were to land tomorrow, the USA would be on the “blow them out of the sky” team, and definitely would not be willing to share their intel with anyone else. It was a very distracting regression back to old Hollywood norms and, despite how much I appreciate the film’s message of “hey, why don’t we all try working together for once,” it did not accomplish that by having America leading the charge in peaceful negotiations. With that said, the message the film was attempting to get across is a beautiful, if somewhat idealistic, one. Imagine if the whole world actually did work together to solve a common problem (like poverty, or hunger, or world peace). It’s actually pretty incredible to think about what we could accomplish as a whole, and I think that message comes through pretty obviously (however misguided-ly).
You have to suspend belief a little bit; that’s kind of weird to say for a sci-fi movie but it’s true. ***SPOILERS AHEAD*** How would a rogue soldier manage to sneak several cases of explosives into a spaceship in order to blow up a spaceship that is 1500 feet tall and defies the laws of physics? How does Louise decipher the heptapods’ language? It’s never really explained, although it looks like some sort of arbitrary math, which, by the way, I didn’t realize that she was also a master mathematician. Why on earth would the Chinese stop their military assault due to some American speaking unexplained Mandarin on an unauthorized phone call? No way would the Chinese have even picked up that phone in the first place. How does learning the heptapod’s language make you all of a sudden be able to time-travel?
I have to be honest…Amy Adams didn’t deserve an Oscar nomination. I’m sorry! She was by far the best performer in the film, I’ll give her that, and yes, her performance carried the film, but that’s more of an indictment of the other actors rather than praising hers. She did give them film its humanity and its emotion; she was just a little too nuanced, a little too subdued and tense. It doesn’t help that her supporting cast is meh. Jeremy Renner is solid, but boring. Also, he contributes almost nothing to the scientific side of the operation, despite being one of the most decorated theoretical physicists in the world. Forest Whitaker is equally bland, scowling his way through the film without really doing anything.
The most positive thing I have to say about the film is that it’s hauntingly, beautifully bleak. Awash in greys and greens and blues, Villeneuve does a tremendous job of transporting us to the landing site and setting the emotion of the film. Combined with Johann Johannsson’s beautiful score, and Arrival is quite the visual and aural experience. All in all, I went into this film with such high expectations and was disappointed. Maybe that’s my fault.
Not my pick for Best Picture. Arrival‘s various missteps will probably cost Villeneuve Best Director, and then in turn Best Adapted Screenplay. It should do well in the technical categories, though.
Fun fact: In the whiteboard shot where Louise writes the big question, immediately above the question is the standard formula for entropy – the arrow of time.
Scene to watch: The scene when Louise first makes contact with the heptapods is extremely tense—best part of the film in my opinion.
Why you should watch it: It is an intelligent film, and people should see it; it just tries too hard.
Why you shouldn’t: It’s a little slow, the acting is so-so, and the emotional payoff at the end is a little underwhelming.
Tell me what you thought of Arrival in the comments below! And as always, please help me pick which movie I should watch next in the poll above!