Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Starr: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 2)
NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was underwhelmed overall, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema, particularly for the strength of Adams’ quiet certainty.
Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are bound by time and its order.
(Louise’s opening gambit, which effectively is the plot, in synopsis and hiding in plain sight)
You approach language like a mathematician
(Ian paying Louise a compliment, of sorts)
Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s optimistic sci-fi short story about how we make sense of language and how it makes sense of us. It is a film that feels as if it is dangling from a bridge between old and new ways of understanding narrative cinema, and by extension the worlds that narrative cinema helps to describe. It is a singularity that aims for a multiverse, but like the linguistic and scientific experts that are the film’s central characters, the film can only really approximate a slender understanding of a small part of the many. Without wishing to sound flippant I can only imagine what kind of inventive mess the Wachowskis may have come up with if it had been filtered through their far more promiscuous and polymorphous narrative conceptions. One question this film does resolve for this viewer is whether Villeneuve is a potentially great director, or whether Taylor Sheridan was the reason why Sicario (2015) was a far better work than Prisoners (2013). With this year’s delightful Hell or High Water (2016) Sheridan delivered a script that was just as rich and sinuous as his exceptional work with Villeneuve. Yet Arrival has all of the sombre tones and crippling moral masochism of Prisoners, with none of Sicario’s narrative momentum. As a result it feels a little bloated and pillowy; another ‘big ideas’ science fiction film that falls back on slightly silly sentimentality when it has exceeded the limits of those ideas.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguistics professor and translator, who at the start of the film has seemingly experienced the grief associated with the loss of a child. Nothing seems particularly out of place here, as we are given very little of Louise’s normal life before she is whisked off by Forest Whitaker’s uncompromising Colonel Weber to make sense of the arrival of a number of unidentified alien aircrafts at various sites around the globe. However, the keen-eyed viewer may have a little doubt as to whether somebody in Banks’s apparently vaunted academic position could have lost an adult child to a terminal disease at such a relatively young age (the ‘flashbacks’ that frontload the film seem to depict Louise’s adult daughter dying). Whilst in transit to the Montana craft site Louise is introduced to Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an equally brilliant physicist, who will form the scientific side of the investigation into what precisely the alien beings intend. It is relatively charming and quaint that a modern American film would place so much faith in the work of ‘experts’, especially in the year that gave the world Trumpism.
Louise’s empathetic qualities accelerate the pursuit of mutual comprehension between us humans and what the US investigation team come to call Heptapods (due to the seeming presence of seven tentacle-like limbs). Whilst the military apparatus and hierarchy that surround her keep constant track of how the geopolitical picture is developing in Russia, Venezuela and most importantly China, Louise, with a little help from Ian, sets about making sense of what the Heptapods want. From the beginning Louise is absolutely certain that communication is the reason for contact, not military operations. Working within an unclear timeframe (weeks, days and months go by) Louise and Ian, with their respective teams, put together software that can begin to make sense of the inky, gaseous emissions that form the material structure of the aliens’ written language. Yet even with a commitment to understanding that has gone far beyond any of the work being conducted by other nations (of course), Louise and Ian cannot prevent slippages of meaning and misunderstandings from occurring. A crucial linguistic issue is whether or not the aliens are wishing to offer a weapon, demanding a weapon, or may simply be proffering a tool. These interactions between Louise and the aliens in Montana work as relatively engaging drama, asking the audience to digest a lot of interesting philosophical notions about how meaning is made, and what that meaning can mean. It is to the detriment of Arrival that the film’s bigger picture doesn’t sustain this commitment to difficult questions.
Where arrival comes undone is in the limitations of its geopolitics. In their television series Sense8 (2015) the Wachowski Brothers mapped out a truly ‘trans-‘ conception of the world. This was a show committed to engaging with as many different countries and cultures as possible, giving each story strand a specific location and worldview that was defined by that specificity. By offering up an alien presence in places as diverse as Sierra Leone, Sudan and Greenland, Arrival seems to enter similar terrain as the Wachowskis, yet the disappointment here is that it shows so little interest in these other possible windows onto the world. Instead we are presented with the heroic US singularity, a narrative curve that has been flogged to death a thousand times over. Granted, Amy Adams heroine is something beyond the usual white male sci-fi presences, but weren’t we here before with Jodie Foster in Contact (1997)?
The opening sections of the film with Louise’s bursts of memory, followed by the gradual realisation of the alien presence, and then humanity’s reaction, are unsettlingly effective because Villeneuve and his DOP, Bradford Young, never let their stately camerawork settle. Whether tracking, panning, or simply ever-so-slightly reframing, the camera is always in motion, as if the very fabric of reality is being stretched and remoulded by the presence of these unusual new visitors. Yet from the moment Whitaker’s Colonel arrives in Louise’s office this intriguing visual patterning is shunted to one side in favour of a more static and conventional approach to camera placement. Villeneuve and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote the ingenious genre revision Lights Out early this year) similarly run out of the ‘big ideas’ and resort to dramatically reducing the scope of their film to a poorly conceived family melodrama, told almost entirely in flash forwards and without any significant context. Many viewers have compared the film to Spielberg’s early attempt at the genre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I can understand why this comparison is being so readily made, but to these eyes it seems like Villeneuve has turned the strengths of that film into failings. The beauty of Spielberg’s effort is that it begins as a drama about the disintegration of a family, when the father has a nervous breakdown. The family melodrama is therefore the crux of the film and the science fiction encounter is the magnifying glass through which the family tensions can be scrutinised. In Arrival Villeneuve gives his audience the sci-fi encounter and then gradually diminishes its awesome nature till we are lost once more in the distracting insularity of the individual’s dilemma. I would have preferred a few detours or delays rather than such an underwhelming arrival.
Rating: 6 / 10