This intelligent science fiction film has “arrived” to great expectation and a fanfare of five-star reviews. This expectation can sometimes place an unfair pressure on the film, and for me the result is a mixed bag.
Arrival is based on “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a short story that tackles the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; don’t worry I had no idea what this hypothesis was until reading about it after seeing the film. The story starts with our main protagonist, the seemingly emotionally drained linguistics professor, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) having her lecture interrupted as the world in thrown into chaos by the arrival of 12 mysterious extra-terrestrial crafts. She is then recruited by Forest Whitaker’s gruff Colonel Weber along with Jeremy Renner’s physicist, Ian Donnelly, to try to decipher the alien’s mind-bending language before global panic sparks an inter-species war.
Firstly, the film looks great, director Denis Villeneuve, as with Sicario and Prisoners, has shaken up a familiar genre with a thought-provoking and stylish manner. The Blade Runner sequel seems to be safe in his capable hands. The opening act is almost perfect, building tension and character accompanied by Johann Johannsons’ unnerving score. The first trip into the alien craft is deftly captured by our protagonist’s face and the visuals are equally disturbing and awe-inspiring. In the craft the rules of gravity are stunningly realised, but this scene then abruptly ends to move the story along, hitting some of my initial problems with the film. To keep things moving the film uses a voiceover montage, containing a great Sheena Easton joke, but compared to other aspects this is a lazy narrative device as is the reliance on the clichéd news channel updates of world events. At its best the film is toying with your expectation of cinematic convention and treating the audience with respect, allowing you to see the story unfold rather than being force-fed.
The biggest positive is Amy Adams, this is her film, this must be her Oscar moment as the emotion of the film is carried by her face and reactions. When the final act perspective alteration occurs it’s her performance that carries the audience through. The supporting cast are reliably good, but don’t really get a look in. Adam’s character explaining the difficulty in getting the heptapod aliens to understand one simple sentence is a delight as it becomes clear it will not be an easy task to turn the creatures’ subtitles on. There are a few moments of humour and levity that quickly disappear as the narrative flirts with the boundaries of what the audience will accept. It is a film that takes itself very seriously and ultimately it deserves to. The comparisons with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day The Earth Stood Still are inevitable, but it does feels fresh.
My biggest problem with the film would be to discuss major spoilers. The central idea is well crafted, but character and species motivations become clouded and not explained to a satisfying degree. When there is a major shift in perspective I was not clear why the perspective wasn’t changed for more characters. I also found character motivations to ultimately be extremely selfish and an alternative view is never fully explored. The biggest flaw for me personally is whilst I enjoyed the many merits of this film I have no urgent desire to see it again.
So, I am going to be brave and buck the trend, I would recommend seeing it, but it’s far from a five-star masterpiece. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I am not high-brow enough in my film tastes, but the performance and visuals aren’t enough to overcome the story flaws for me. Am I the only person to be left a little cold by this film and not naming this my film of the year?