I really hope this trend keeps on rolling. This interest mainstream cinema has been having since 2013 with science fiction films largely focused on character-intimate narrative and involving space or extra-terrestrial life. It’s been around before but I can’t recall a previous streak of annual tentpole after tentpole interested in supporting character arcs with as much hard science fiction as they can make palatable. Gravity kicked that off and remains the best of the bunch largely on the merit of its technical achievement in putting the viewer in the position of a space castaway, Interstellar used relative time to make us feel heavily for the domestic drama of the Coopers, The Martian was a hip-hip-hoorah bit of showing-off just how smart and resourceful humans can be and the achievements of international cooperation, and now Arrival is the closest return to the quality of Gravity, without really being thaaat close to reaching it.
Needless to say, I would like to see this trend keep on rolling because all four movies are pretty darn likable, if not for the exact same audience (I have not seen that many people enthusiastic for all four of these movies). And they all despite their faults (like the fact that Interstellar‘s script is… out there) have a tendency to encourage more thought on scientific concepts in their themes, even if they’re not really that in-depth and the closest of the four to hard sci-fi is the most commercial crowd-pleaser, The Martian.
But Arrival is still one of those pleasant intellectual sci-fi films and, wouldn’t you know it, it doesn’t even have to leave Earth. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival‘s script by Eric Heisserer is pretty straightforward with its premise and only allows itself to get in-depth on the minutia of the academic elements during its first half.
This time around out of the bunch of 2010s science fiction, the aliens have arrived and for once they’ve arrived in 12 different locations around the globe rather than just the United States, but of course, our focus is on the spaceship floating above Montana. Every single one of those nations with a spaceship in its vicinity takes the sudden and unannounced arrival seriously enough to try engage their ship individually and apparently they’re all having trouble getting the message across to the extra-terrestrial septapods and back, so on behalf of the US government, Col. GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) enlists linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to figure out a way to communicate with the septapods despite their language being marvelously designed as a strictly visual one, basically a ghostly black ink circle. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a recruited theoretical physicist, turns out to be the most receptive of Louise’s colleagues to her methods and findings and proves to be an invaluable aid to their mission as the tensions between the aliens and nations (and between the nations themselves) start ticking down behind them.
And so for the most part, the action remains between the US military’s base right below the giant sleek yet stonish alien ship and the interior of the alien ship itself when Louise, Ian, and company are able to enter daily to attempt communication and man, the ship is the biggest surprise of the film to me in all of its weird treatment of gravity, its cavernous interiors that the humans explore separated by a screen from a foggy infinite where the septapods reside. It’s all obviously the work of ambitious CGI that still retains a real-world grounding and tangibility in its natural and low-key look. Even despite its fantastical make-up. And once again there’s that messy-looking language that still retains recognizable patterns so that we can identify certain phrases without being as educated as Louise or Ian.
Those moments inside the ship are the true interesting elements of the procedural that is the first half of Arrival, while the moments in the base with Weber and Halpern are there to remind us that there’s a fire lighting under Louise’s ass to make this film a race against time. It’s reminiscent enough of Contact without being an out-and-out spiritual sequel.
And that’s all enough to make the movie worth stopping this review and checking out if you want to because… semi-warning: I don’t want to spoil the movie and I won’t. But I’m going to be implying things that might be able to figure out what happens in its second half, so… be warned)
Ah and then there’s the real shocker of the movie where it reveals just how cheekily it has been messing with our chronological association of moments and from there… well, I can see how some people have a problem with it. Arrival‘s treatment of Louise as a character sinks low to a sort of conservative-esque reduction of her life, a very gender-role-based attitude about where her destiny lies (which is not helped by the fatalistic attitude the movie has about people’s lives via the same twist). One of my friends promised me that “want to make a baby?” would be one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard and in the context of the movie, I guffawed in the theater at its inopportune placing in the most emotional point of the film (I understand it also is placed there to give autonomy to Louise as a character, but its an inorganic way to do so and very much goes against its fate-based attitudes).
It’s also the sort of twist that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny the more you overthink it. The drive back was spent in discussion of just how tangled the movie’s premise becomes when the first half is looked back on through the lens of the second half. It’s not nearly as successful a finale as I like to pretend it is.
BUT! It’s still the sort of structural sleight-of-hand I love a movie to pull off, the kind of subjective tricks that Joe Walker’s editing should be shamelessly proud of. And Adams is no slouch in giving a movie a human element, as even when Louise distracts herself with her workload, she has a vacant depression looming over her punctuated by flashbacks of her late daughter. And so when Adams is carrying your humanity, you can bet its going to work as emotional release, just as much as it works as cinematic manipulation. So I don’t regret liking and I don’t regret telling people to go see it. It’s as worthy a piece of character drama mixed with sci-fi as Interstellar and Gravity (and much cleaner than their scripts too, but y’know… Interstellar) and a very impressive work of science fiction craftsmanship in almost all regards (the fact that I barely find space to mention how Bradford Young continues to be the best new talent on the camera, yet feel compelled to mention it says a lot), putting Denis Villeneuve on better terms with me after too many films I dislike. Two hours could be spent in worst ways that learning how to talk to aliens, especially when it says some pretty radical things about time to begin with.