Movie Review: Arrival
PG-13 | 1h 56min
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
by Jason Koenigsberg
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has emerged as one of cinemas best new directors in the past five years with taut, intellectual thrillers like Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Which makes it even more disappointing that his newest film Arrival is an unpleasant, pretentious drag.
The opening shot is a dark ceiling panning to a window and a lakeside view at either dawn or dusk. That would have stood out except the director really fell in love with those shots looking straight up at a ceiling and slowly tracking forward to reveal the sky and an establishing shot. We learn early on that Amy Adams’ character lost a daughter, presumably to cancer, and the next thing we see is that UFO’s have landed in Earth’s atmosphere. There is a long build up to actually seeing the alien vessels which proved to be anti-climactic since we already saw what the ships look like in the trailers. The plot is fairly straightforward. Adams plays a brilliant linguistics professor recruited by the US military to help communicate with the alien species.
Forest Whitaker is the army man who enlists Adams and once again he is doing his usual shtick. Acting weird for the sake of being weird and standing out from everyone else, this time he does so using a funny accent that was stronger in some scenes and almost unnoticeable in others. Unfortunately, he was the only actor that stood out. Jeremy Renner and Michael Stuhlbarg round out the cast. They are reliable and talented actors but here the script makes them so boring that nothing other than Whitaker’s weird accent made any of them stand out. We are left with virtually indistinguishable characters with interchangeable personalities. It would have been refreshing for at least one of them to serve as comic relief or something remotely human. For a movie about humanity, these guys acted a lot like robots.
Sadly, Arrival is a very ugly looking movie. It features very dark cinematography and low key lighting throughout which served no purpose to enhance the characters or story. Only Amy Adams’ red hair and striking blue eyes were lit in a way that they stood out amongst all the other painfully drab colors.
The script had problems to say the least. It moved at snails pace and there were moments where narration appeared out of nowhere. Plus they just announce the name that the humans gave the creatures as heptopods (because they have seven legs) at a moment that felt like a throwaway. Arrival was written to be a topical film about humanity and how we need to work together to survive, but instead ended up as a very weak sci-fi melodrama with dead children and motherhood being pervasive themes.
It is commendable that for a big budget science fiction movie, Arrival featured minimal special effects and relied on the actors to carry the story, if only the characters they played were allowed to be more interesting, Arrival could have worked. The aliens in the film looked like the creatures from The Mist (2007). The ideas about humanity coming together and how language can bring us closer and also tear us apart could have been interesting if they explored it properly. The ending felt a little too perfect with our main characters deciphering a complex code when the rest of the communication and translation process of single words took months.
Arrival will yield comparisons to Contact (1997), District 9 (2009) and Interstellar (2014). It tries to be similar to them thematically and fails for the most part. It is the first black eye on the resume of Denis Villeneuve. Even more disheartening is that his next film is the sequel to Blade Runner (1982) and if this is any indication of how he handles science fiction as a social commentary, it may not live up to being the highly anticipated continuation to one of the best sci-fi pictures of all time.
Instead of seeing Arrival this weekend. Check out any of the films I mentioned above or the similarly titled but criminally overlooked Charlie Sheen alien invasion movie The Arrival (1996).