Arrival is a mature, intelligent science fiction drama that aspires to the mystery and grandeur of genre classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but ends up in the impressive yet ultimately disappointing vein of pseudo-edifying, mildly saccharine, Hollywood highbrow sci-fi like Contact, Interstellar, and The Martian. Eric Heisserer (screenwriter of the 2011 remake/prequel The Thing) adapts Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer Ted Chiang’s novella "Story of Your Life," about mysterious extraterrestrial spacecraft that land at various points across the globe. Prolific director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) brings his patient sense of pacing and his gift for unsettling visual composition to this grounded, realistic take on a first contact story. The always-sublime Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist selected by the American military to head up a special team stationed around one of the alien landing sites, in rural Montana. Partnered with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks must use her exceptional understanding of written and spoken languages to attempt communication with the aliens.
There is a great deal to like about this picture. However, most of what I responded to positively were the film’s intentions, surface details, and the ways it differs from standard big-budget fare, not the inherent power of its execution, plot, or underlying subtext. I love that this is an original, stand-alone genre feature that tells a complete narrative rather than the thin origin story of a preexisting property on which to build a future franchise. I love that the female protagonist is a thoughtful, soft-spoken linguistics professor, not a pumped-up, tough talkin’ action hero. And I love the way the filmmakers play with physics in intelligent, exciting, and humorous ways, instead of blatantly ignoring all physical laws in an attempt to make special effects appear more dazzling (but only succeeding in making them look more cartoonish). These praiseworthy attributes, as well as the themes of scientific inquiry and international cooperation, the uniquely thrilling yet melancholy tone, and the otherworldly soundtrack by gifted Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, make Arrival a welcome change of pace at the multiplex.
But after the wondrous imagery and thought provoking puzzles presented in the first two thirds, Arrival devolves in its third act into a frustrating collection of prestige picture clichés and schmaltzy, drawn-out melodrama. Just as we reach the mid-point of the film, where things should start to get really exciting, the action is compressed into a mini-montage overlaid with Dr. Donnelly’s voiceover telling us of Dr. Banks’s accomplishments. But we don’t get to see her make these breakthroughs and revelations, nor witness how those around her react to them. And despite frequent glimpses into Dr. Banks’s mind and memories, she remains as much of a cipher as the aliens whose language she is tasked with translating. Dr. Donnelly doesn’t even rise to the level of supportive love interest or plucky sidekick; his main function is as audience surrogate, asking the questions and making the observations that form in viewers’ minds. This is too bad, since there are already other characters fulfilling that function, primarily Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. Their talents are wasted playing the only two kinds of one-dimensional military guys Hollywood sci-fi seems to know—the honorable man following orders and the dimwitted paranoid hawk.
Far too much of the film’s central mystery gets explained after the fact rather than experienced in the moment, and these elucidations only serve to patronize the audience and open up holes in the movie’s internal logic. One key scene in which subtitles are employed is such a violation of the film’s prior intelligent approach to both science and storytelling that the picture never recovers from it. Everything builds to a frenzied climax where the pieces all come together in Dr. Banks’s mind, but in the end this resolution adds up to little more than a deus ex machina, a third act twist worthy of mid-career M. Night Shyamalan (in fact there are more than a few unflattering similarities to Shyamalan’s hollow alien invasion story Signs).
I will say that—as with the aforementioned Contact and Interstellar—I admired so much about Arrival that I saw it twice within the span of two weeks. Often a second viewing can make you forgive things in a movie that got in your way the first time. But for all the impressive ideas and visuals—not to mention the cast’s ability to keep us engaged even after their characters and premise cease to transfix— Arrival is, at best, an extremely intriguing letdown.