By Nathan Evans
‘Arrival’ is the latest sci-fi film from director Denis Villeneuve; the man responsible for the 2013 Hugh Jackman film ‘Prisoners’ (which I have yet to see) and its follow-up ‘Enemy’ (which I did see… I think I chose the wrong movie there). The film stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor recruited by the United States government to interface with a newly arrived alien race that have parked their spaceships above various random locations around the world. Adams is partnered with scientist Ian Donnelly, played by one of the most consistently strong actors of our day, Jeremy Renner. Together the pair, along with a military colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker), venture into the aliens’ ship to establish communications. As Louise and Donnelly draw closer to deciphering the aliens’ peculiar form of language (inky semi-circle symbols they form against a barrier that separates their native atmosphere from ours), Louise is increasingly haunted by visions of her daughter who grew to young adulthood before tragically passing away.
‘Arrival’ is a feature length adaptation of a 1998 novella called ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang. Unfortunately, the lack of narrative heft in the source material bleeds through in the film. While a beautiful melancholic, dreamlike tone permeates the movie, both visually and emotionally from beginning to end, it serves as a double edged sword. The first hour and a half of this two hour feature moves at a lethargic pace that will challenge the patience of many. It feels as if Villeneuve is struggling desperately to stretch the story out. Fortunately, the director’s somber visuals, the strength of his veteran cast, and the mystery of the aliens themselves are enough to combat the challenging pace long enough for the movie to deliver its heart wrenching gut-punch of a twist (which I of course won’t spoil here).
Adams arguably delivers one of the greatest performances of her career. Her Dr. Banks is soulful, yet strong, and the film is smart enough to not go out of its way to make a point of it. The range of emotion she’s able to convey without chewing the scenery is impressive; there’s no overblown “Oscar” moment within the film (though that’s not to say her performance isn’t deserving of one. I hope she at least garners a nomination around awards time.). There’s a distinct lack of vanity in Dr. Banks that distinguishes her from some of the more bright, outgoing characters Adams has portrayed in the past. Quite frankly, it’s a performance I wouldn’t of thought her capable of pulling off, but I’m glad to say she blew me away.
Renner, of course, keeps up admirably with Adams. It seems as if he’s the cinematic equivalent of water— he takes the shape of whatever cup you pour him into (that sounds weird). I mean to say, he’s a great utility player: while he may not necessarily elevate everything he shows up in, he’s always solid and a welcome addition to this cast in particular. His character, Donnelly, serves as a sort of Ian Malcolm lite, a brilliant scientist that doesn’t necessarily know how to talk to people; which just makes him more endearing.
I wish the same could be said for Forest Whitaker’s Weber… or maybe I don’t. I have to be honest: I’ve never been a fan of Whittaker. He’s a performer that always makes just one choice too many. At this point it’s just irritating to me, which admittedly, makes it difficult for me to judge his performance impartially. Here he seems to use a strange nonsensical accent that distracted me from every scene he shows up in… or maybe that’s just his actual voice; I have no way to tell because I’ve never seen him speak normally in anything. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Unless you feel the same bias I do, feel free to disregard this portion of the review (or don’t).
Weber brings with him a couple of nameless soldiers that fuel a subplot that seemingly springs out of nowhere and serves as the film’s largest misstep. I won’t go into detail about it here, but I will say, while it ultimately isn’t of enough consequence to put much of a dent in the overall proceedings, it does feel rote and unnecessary.
Though flawed, ‘Arrival’ is the rare film that challenges both intellectually and emotionally. The aforementioned twist (which, again, I won’t ruin here) is one of the most clever and surprising moments I’ve seen in a film in years. It’s a twist that asks devastating questions about the human race and the nature of love and heartbreak. While many will try to lump this film into the same category as other thinking man sci-fi thrillers like ‘Gravity’ and ‘Interstellar’ (both great films in their own right), ‘Arrival’ is much more emotionally astute than either of those. If you’re able to walk out of the theater with dry eyes you either haven’t met a child, don’t have children, or have no soul (or maybe I’m just a wuss— feel free to discuss in the comments section below).
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5