‘Arrival’ Arrives Just in Time Despite a Sticky Ending


Amy Adams is sublime in this prescient exploration of communication, family and time that all but demands multiple viewings.

After screening at Telluride earlier this year, critics have hailed Arrival as a game-changer for director Denis Villeneuve. But where is this change specifically? With the esoteric science fiction of Villeneuve’s Enemy and a female lead akin to Sicario, Villeneuve’s marriage of sci-fi and action drama is the revelation. Arrival couldn’t have arrived (pun intended) at a better time and the film’s message of international cooperation sticks out more than anything else.

When twelve mysterious alien pods station themselves throughout the world, questions understandably arise. Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is recruited by the U.S. government to interview the alien beings in the hopes of discovering what they want.

Arrival reinstilled my interest in Villeneuve as a director after being in the minority on last year’s Sicario. The film suffers from issues in the presentation of Louise’s character, but it’s less irksome than Emily Blunt in the former film. DP Bradford Young frames Adams against the ship’s ethereal structure and their similarities to Louise’s own sparse life beautifully. Young’s photographic compositions continue to cement him as a promising young talent.

Past and futures’ intersection, coupled with Louise and Ian’s (Jeremy Renner) present day mission are like watching a waking dream. This leaves more of a lingering fascination for the aesthetic, as opposed to feeling the story. You have to admire the film’s beauty in its questions rather than live in the present matter of what it’s saying.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

With the election results tensions are running high, Arrival’s message is what’s important. Eric Heisserer’s script takes a thoughtful approach to first contact, showing a divided world with China and Russia’s wariness turning dangerous. Eerily enough Louise’s pleads for international cooperation are so prescient today as to be prophecy; television news broadcasts show the fear and apprehension of the aliens arrival that produce chills in a post-election world.

A key portion of Heisserer’s script is devoted to linguistics and language, with obvious parallels to Jodie Foster’s Contact.  Linguistically dense, audiences might be turned off by the film’s user-manual technical jargon. But with so many action films leaning towards anti-intellectualism, how Arrival embraces knowledge is refreshing.

How language becomes misrepresented couldn’t be timelier, and Heisserer believes his audience will get the message, eventually. Adams describes the world of language in a straightforward way that flows as smoothly as the alien language itself. Adams breaking down a sentence to its basic parts is one of my favorite scenes of the year; it’s the English major in me. (It’ll be interesting to put this alongside Alex Garland’s Annihilation next year’s, a similar sci-fi tale with living prose.)

Adams is a firecracker as Louise. Her massive intelligence has kept her at a distance from the world, yet she never apologizes. Her performance is quiet and methodical. When the government refuses to listen, she recounts a story about the origins of the word “kangaroo” in one of the film’s few moments of intellectual humor. Jeremy Renner plays second fiddle to Adams (which works out just fine). He doesn’t do anything wow-worthy, but that could be because Adams is such a powerhouse.

However, for all Arrival’s good its payload, the human component, becomes a sappy quagmire. The time conceit is apparent from the moment Adams declares “we are so bound by time.” Though the film’s twist presents itself nicely, her statements keep the audience on edge. This opens the door for an abundance of deus ex machina’s. Certain third act moments come from the writers penciling themselves into a corner with the erase button too close at hand.

Renner’s Ian is a product of this convenience, acting as Louise’s scientific partner spouting exposition. He situates them as opposites – he sees science as the foundation for civilization; she thinks language is – but there’s no real conflict between the two. By the end he’s there to service the twist and perpetuate the equation that two people of opposite genders working together must always end up together by the end.

Next: ‘Christine’ Shows the Struggle for Female Achievement

Though beautifully shot, with a phenomenal performance by Amy Adams it doesn’t set aside how plodding the narrative feels, how perfunctory the supporting cast is, and how the twist does little more than remind us of staid tropes we’ve seen before. Arrival is a necessary film in these trying times. It’s message about cooperation and the ease for miscommunication couldn’t be needed more. But unlike my colleagues praising this as the second coming, I just didn’t see it.