There are very few directors whose name on a movie will convince me to see it immediately, lacking all other information or context (Darren Aronofsky and Guillermo del Toro spring to mind.) Denis Villeneuve – of “Prisoners” and “Sicario” renown – is one of those few directors.
Yes, this is a movie about aliens, but it’s largely unlike anything you’ve seen before. The concept is elegantly simple: when mysterious alien vessels appear across the world, the U.S. government calls in language expert Louise Banks (a fantastic Amy Adams) to help communicate with the inhabitants. Contrary to what one might suspect, this is not a film that strays into grand philosophizing about colonialism, progress, and the nature of man. Instead, “Arrival” maintains a laser focus on just one question: how do you make peaceful contact with an utterly alien race that doesn’t even share the most rudimentary elements of human language?
In probing that question, Villeneuve takes his viewers on a deep dive into linguistic theory that (almost) never succumbs to the temptation to “dumb things down.” This is the most cerebral movie I’ve ever seen in wide-release – a tour de force of hard science fiction that assumes its audience’s intelligence.
One sense lingers strongest upon exiting the theater: Villeneuve is a wonderful filmmaker. The movie’s first act positively bleeds tension (on the level of the “Sicario” checkpoint sequence), but this tension is of a particularly high-level sort: “Arrival” features no city-leveling battles, gory murders, or transcendental journeys. Instead, the real threat here is miscommunication: provoking the enigmatic aliens into doing something world-destroying through improper translation strategy.
Moreover, this is far less a movie about aliens than it is about Louise and her work, which gives the film a deeply grounded sense of realism: were this scenario to occur tomorrow, I am fairly confident things would play out almost exactly as Villeneuve depicts them onscreen. The characters of “Arrival” – including Jeremy Renner as a physicist and Forest Whitaker as an Army general – are hopeful, venal, brilliant, and tormented in equal measure, imbuing the movie with an even stronger aura of plausibility.
This film is, in many ways, a spiritual companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (except set on earth rather than in space). However, “Arrival” doesn’t handle its emotional beats nearly as smoothly. At heart, this is a very geeky movie about science and language, not the “human experience” in all its fullness – and yet it periodically lapses into odd tonal shifts that do not fit well. “Interstellar” might have successfully made you tear up; “Arrival” almost certainly will not.
“Arrival” also suffers from a frustrating tendency to overexplain itself. Without giving too much away, the movie contains a staggering third-act revelation (of the spit-out-your-popcorn, “Sixth Sense” variety) that is both brilliant and maddening, and that potentially lends itself to either awe or parody. Absent the overexplanation, this twist would remain firmly in the “brilliant” realm – but as it is, certain elements feel just a bit off.
All in all, “Arrival” is a gripping story that falls just short of legitimate greatness (if I had to guess, I’d theorize that studio meddling is responsible for the slightly-truncated runtime and hints of sentimentalism). If you are a fan of Crichton-style sci-fi, though, this is not a movie to miss.
It doesn’t totally stick its landing, but “Arrival” remains a brilliant departure from the sci-fi norm.
Normalized Score: 5.8