The newest film from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario), Arrival falls squarely into that subgenera of “hard” science fiction where emotions are just as important as the pretty spaceships. And while it artfully tells a simple story, it fails to develop its characters enough to drive an emotional connection to the story.
Twelve UFOs suddenly appear on Earth, hovering just above the surface of our planet. This sparks international chaos in the general public, but the governments that control the territories with the ships assemble teams of scientists to attempt to learn more about the mysterious visitors. In the United States, that team is led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who recruits a linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), and a particle physicist, Ian (Jeremy Renner) to try to communicate with the beings aboard the craft.
Most of the film is concerned with how to communicate with beings that have a language unlike anything found on our planet. And those procedural-style scenes of Louise and team trying to solve this problem and create clear lines of communication with the aliens are the film at its best. It’s a fascinating puzzle to solve, and the film feels its most clever and interesting when it is demonstrating the inventive ways we attempt to bridge linguistic barriers. The importance of tone, meanings, and cultural baggage contained in simple word choice and grammatical concepts are all at the core of the issues this film raises.
In the end, Villeneuve is using these concepts to tell a story about making hard choices. It asks us to ponder how we experience our lives through the lenses of time and what we value and whether the difficult choices we have to make are “worth it.” Most of this is happening in parallel to the main plot, but he film doesn’t give us as much insight into Louise as it should in order to make this work on an emotional level. We only get a vague sense of what is important to her since the film spends most of its time on the procedural aspects. The central conceit and science fiction mechanics in the film are powerful and fascinating, but more time was needed to explore the impact to the characters rather than spending time explaining what was happening.
Despite its faults, Arrival is an exceptionally well-crafted film. The technical aspects are all well-executed, from the lighting choices to the score. All of the choices in the film work exceptionally well in concert. This is a hopeful film, calling for more communication on the surface, offering deeper mysteries well. For those that connect with the film emotionally, in spite of the lacking character development, they are likely to be completely captivated by what is has to offer.
Arrival opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.