Much to my delight, a few interesting Sci-Fi titles will help bring 2016 to a close. The highly anticipated Arrival debuted in theaters on Nov. 11 and it didn’t disappoint. With the weekend upon us yet again, here is a deeper look at the extraterrestrial adventure as it heads into its second weekend.
Arrival is the story of Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a leading authority on linguistics, who is recruited to assist the United States government in communicating with an alien race that has landed a dozen ships around Earth. Along the way she discovers more about herself than she bargained for and leans heavily on her colleague Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) for emotional and professional support.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve helmed the project and carried a good amount of momentum with him into the project. Cashing in on that, he is currently filming Blade Runner 2049, a prequel to the 1982 cult-classic and had previously directed Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2013’s crime drama Prisoners. Most recently, he’d directed 2015’s Sicario, starring Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt (both good films in their own right, carrying mostly favorable reviews and ratings from IMDB and Metacritic). His particular brand of filmmaking lent itself wonderfully to the human-alien conflict and the tension is palpable from the outset. However, this film doesn’t come rocketing out of the gates. Quite the contrary. The beginning is kind of slow as it lays the groundwork for Dr. Banks character and it may lose some audience members with short attention spans. Once the film hits its stride (about 25 minutes deep) the pacing is much better as it gets into the meat of the story.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score helps immensely in setting the tone for this film. Strong, almost guttural bass tones command attention and the underlying frequency is piercing. There are many scenes that are built mainly on the score without much or any dialogue. These important aspects of the setting shouldn’t overlooked or casually brushed aside. Jóhannsson had worked with Villeneuve before on Prisoners and Sicario, receiving an Oscar nomination for his contributions to the latter. He was also nominated for his work on The Theory of Everything (2014) and is currently working alongside Villeneuve yet again on the new Blade Runner 2049. I am pretty confident that project is in good hands.
Considering Arrival is about a language expert trying to decipher an alien language, the screenplay wasn’t particularly memorable, or at least the dialogue wasn’t. Eric Heisserer is mostly known for his writing credits on bad horror films like Final Destination 5 and Lights Out. However, he also wrote The Thing remake in 2011 which I really like a lot and is very dialogue heavy. In the context of this film, Amy Adams opening voice over is thick with foreshadowing and comes into play again by film’s end if you can remember what she actually said (I can’t exactly, but it’s something like ‘I used to believe in beginnings and endings’). The remainder of the dialogue is a bit of a struggle, similar to that of Adams’s character. Although the screenplay serves Adams well, many of her best moments on screen are free of redundant and confining dialogue sequences in which she is forced to explain her area of expertise to the government (and audience) via Forest Whitaker’s tragically underutilized Colonel Weber. While we’re on the subject of language, Martine Bertrand deserves credit for designing the beautiful and eloquent alien language. Conveying equal parts complexity and simplicity, the design also serves a functional purpose as the key plot device.
The visual storytelling fell short of my expectations, but wasn’t a total disaster. Director of photography Bradford Young was coming off Selma and will be directing photography for the upcoming Han Solo project. He did a good job given the script, relegated to mainly interior shots. The most memorable of which were interiors of Dr. Banks’s beach home. The architecture had a retro-modern feel and the rear window looking out on the ocean had strong vertical and horizontal lines, helping to frame Adams when in the foreground. I did notice that Young didn’t appear to use any artificial lighting. At times this made it a bit difficult to make out a character’s face, but I think it helped build the overall aesthetic and relay all the different times of day to the audience.
It’s no secret that this movie is a vehicle to showcase Adams. Although her performance is strong at times throughout, I feel it’s not her best work. There are several moments where the Academy Award nominee shows the depth of her talent, mostly in her role as a mother and not as a linguist. She is flanked by Renner who provides a good, but very run-of-the-mill partner. I found his character to be poorly written with little-to-no character development. As I mentioned earlier, Forest Whitaker could have and should have been a much larger part of the film. His character is the de facto representative of the government, but the conflict between Colonel Weber and Dr. Banks is mostly superficial and never really reaches a boiling point. Instead, the relationship between them merely simmers and adds very little to the mix aside from an explanatory function.
As a science-fiction fan, I did enjoy the film. Based on what I had read and heard before seeing it, I was expecting a serious Oscar contender. However, it has more deficiencies than I expected and its position as one of the year’s best is more reflective of the competition than the film itself. It falls short of the bar set by other recent sci-fi entries Interstellar and The Martian, but remains a solid entry in the genre and a front runner to compete for a handful of Academy Awards. Arrival managed to recoup about half its budget on the opening weekend, bringing in $24 million, but will struggle now that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theaters.
Recommendation: I think parents, and mothers especially, will connect with this film. However, it’s not the kind of movie you want to take the kids to. Make a date night and go see it. Sci-fi fans should enjoy this movie as well. The Doctor Strange crowd will more than likely lose patience and should probably go see something else.