This year’s Hopes Thanksgiving Movie was markedly different to last year’s choice – Spectre – and more enjoyable for a variety of reasons, but not entirely successful. I’ll start by saying that I’m a huge Denis Velleneuve fan – his last four movies (including Arrival) have shown a real sense of diversity both in content and tone, and I consider that to be the mark of a confident director. I’m eagerly anticipating his Bladerunner sequel – as I said in my reviews of Enemy and Sicario, I can’t think of many directors out there right now that I’d be as excited to see directing it.
Plaudits aside, Arrival is a movie I approached warily. A colleague saw it a couple of weeks ago and was on the fence about it. Without giving me any spoilers, he said it was mostly boring and generally “kind of meh”. You can take that criticism as you normally would. If I’m interested in a movie I will end up seeing it, regardless of any positive/negative comments, but I did have some misgivings about it from the trailers, which didn’t really fill me with a lot of enthusiasm. Alien invasion movies – we’ve seen them all by now, from the Independence Day blockbuster, to the creeping insidiousness of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What, I wondered, could Arrival bring to the table that was different enough to warrant the production? I knew very little from it – didn’t know that it was based on a 90s short story by Ted Chiang (Story Of Your Life), only that it was directed by Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, who had also written the mediocre recent horror movie Lights Out and the utterly pointless remake of The Thing in 2011. The cast didn’t strike me as so inspired either. I like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner just fine, but they don’t speak of top tier talent to me. Other than Villeneuve there wasn’t a lot about this that set the heather on fire for me.
I’ve yet to read Chiang’s short story, or Heisserer’s screenplay, but I admit, the movie grabbed me early on, setting the tone with a tragic prologue. It was clear from this scene that the movie was going to be a lot more on the side of subtlety than action, and I thought briefly that I would have been disappointed in it if it contained scene of planes firing missiles or movie marines mobilizing with their Hollywood Standard dialogue (“Light ‘em up!” “Lock and load!”). Without giving anything away, you won’t see any of that in this movie.
What you do get is a nicely non-linear story with a great central performance from Adams, and a solid, but mostly brief-in-terms-of-screen-time, showing from Renner. Forest Whitaker is also in the movie, as a top brass military officer, but the role is underwritten, leaving not much for him to do other than appear and pick up his paycheck. You also get a very good, mysterious looking alien race. Glimpsed behind a glass wall in one of their spaceships, they’re like spectral Lovecraftian entities only partially appearing in a Mist-like environment. The image below is from The Mist, incidentally, not Arrival.
It’s a terrific visual that certainly owes a lot to both sources, but adds to the otherworldliness of the story. Side note: it also reminded me a lot of the Melkotians from the classic Star Trek episode Spectre of the Gun!
Unfortunately, what you also get is a movie that sags badly in Act 2. The overall story is that Adams plays Louise, a linguistics professor brought in to decode the language of an alien race who have appeared in twelve locations across the Earth. In typical movie fashion, the governments of the Earth fear the worst, despite the lack of any threatening actions from the visitors, and are all involved in a race against time to decode the language in case something bad happens. It’s pretty weak and formulaic by Heisserer, and these scenes involving military and government officials are scenes that you HAVE watched many times before. There isn’t much that many directors could do with these scenes other than shoot them and move on, and that’s really the best that can be said of them. They don’t do much to further the plot, because the story belongs only to Adams and her attempt to communicate with the aliens (christened “Heptapods”). But here again, the story is interesting but not compelling viewing. The scenes where she visits the Heptapods to teach them a new word or phrase in English are very similar to each other, in the same way that the other scenes where she and Renner talk to Whitaker have very little variety. Even though the movie is interesting all this time, when so many scenes feel like retreading the same path, Act 2 is a struggle to watch. Interesting can only take a narrative so far, but when the structure of the main act is so flawed, you can only sit there hoping that Act 3 will deliver some kind of payoff.
The good news is that it mostly does, but not really until the final 10 minutes or so. What keeps the movie interesting through Act 2 is a subplot that ties back to the tragic prologue. I won’t give away the content, even though the prologue isn’t played with mystery, but once the movie hits its conclusion, it is a beautiful piece of work, highly charged with emotion that strikes the viewer hard, thanks to the nature of the narrative twist and Adams’ affecting performance. This ending is finally where the movie transcends the genre conventions, and I loved it. Sure, the story has to jump through one final hoop of mostly silly paradoxical storytelling, but the emotional payoff is well worth it. The movie reminded me somewhat of the journey Roy Neary goes through in Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third kind (one spoiler I WILL give is that no, Louise does not go back into space with the aliens), although at the end of Arrival, I was left with some pretty nagging questions. One scene, repeated twice, made me call into question if the aliens were actually real to begin with, and the whole plot device of the alien language, in retrospect simply feels like a giant maguffin. It is certainly a movie worth seeing, but the terrible sagging of Act 2 is something you’re just going to have to plow through.