This is pretty much if neo-Steven Spielberg met neo-Christopher Nolan and both of them brought their B-game.
“Arrival” stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is called upon by the military (led by Forest Whitaker) to figure out alien’s language after spaceships touchdown in 12 locations across the globe. Jeremy Renner and Michael Stuhlbarg also star as Denis Villeneuve directs.
Villeneuve’s two previous mainstream projects, “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” were both films that I enjoyed while watching and then got better as I thought about them. “Arrival” has had the polar effect in that I was middling as I was in my seat and the more I think of it, the more it falls apart.
The things this film does well: like “Prisoners” and “Sicario” it is shot gorgeously. Those two were both were shot by Roger Deakins and earned Oscar nods for cinematography, and this time around Bradford Young takes over filming duties. This is his first big-budget film but you would never guess it; from vast establishing shots with mist rolling in over the massive ships to keeping the aliens shrouded behind mist of their own, the film looks great and establishes tone well, something all of Villeneuve’s films do masterfully.
The script does a good job having us get frustrated alongside Adams and her team that they can’t decode the aliens’ language, and like them sense the growing urgency that the clock is soon expiring.
It is also well-acted, although no one gives any Oscar-worthy turns here. Amy Adams holds everything together as the quiet but knowledgeable Louise, a person who we don’t know much about but do empathize with. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are both solid in a nuanced way and Michael Stuhlbarg has a few darkly amusing moments as a CIA agent.
Now to what holds the film back. It is certainly a thinking man’s science fiction film, but that doesn’t excuse it from dragging, which this film does in patches, especially when it refuses to end. Every time the film looks like it is going to pick up and we get a glimpse at an “ah-ha!” moment, the film cuts away and has a character in the next scene explain what we missed.
I unfortunately can’t go into great detail without spoiling anything, but the ending pulls the rug out from under the audience and nullifies almost everything we think we know about certain characters, and when you think about it in hindsight it really makes the whole film feel contrived. The film thinks it has some deep, meaningful message about humans and what defines us but upon reflection the film is actually quite hallow.
There is a moment in “Steve Jobs” (ugh, now that’s a great film) where Woz responds to Steve with, “that feels like something that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything.” That’s “Arrival;” it looks great on the outside and in-the-moment you may be floored by the perspective gravitas of its intended message, but when you stop and think about it, it all comes apart.
Critics Rating: 6/10