Arrival has the remarkable qualities of all Denis Villeneuve’s films, which include Prisoners and Enemy (both released in 2013), and last year’s Sicario. Its cinematography is brilliant, the acting is second only to the superior performances one finds in a Martin Scorsese or David Fincher production, and its moral and emotional ambiguities add to the story rather than merely express fashionable ambivalence. In individual scenes, Arrival’s score is as good (if not better) as the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs—although it lacks the over-arching tonal crescendo of that strange masterpiece. And, at least as far as time travel films go, Villeneuve’s latest does a good job of not getting too bogged down in the metaphysical implications of its science-fiction aspects. The only cinematic virtue Arrival perhaps lacks is that it doesn’t provide a particularly enjoyable movie-going experience for its audience.
The story, based on the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, centers around Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s recruited by the United States government to translate the alien language of creatures inside twelve UFOs that one day mysteriously land on Earth. Her mission is to find out the creatures’ purpose for coming here. In order to do this, Louise must first establish that the creatures understand particular grammatical categories (questions, generalizations, behavioral intentions). She’s accompanied in her mission by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an attractive theoretical physicist who seems to have little plot significance for a fair amount of the film. There is, to be sure, an inkling of narrative interest that Ian provides when he meets Louise for the first time and the two briefly argue over whether science or language is humanity’s most important tool. But just as the film later answers its tagline (“Why are they here?”), then sweeps it aside as no longer important because it’s no longer a mystery, Ian and Louise’s argument is settled before they even meet the aliens and then never explicitly mentioned again.
While not everything in real life is imbued with significance, it usually makes for shoddy storytelling to have so many narrative and thematic cul-de-sacs. Similar to Shyamalan’s Signs and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, Arrival mostly stays focused on the personal struggles of a small group of characters during a world-historic event, while from time to time glimpsing the impact those events are having on society at-large. In the age of televisions and computers, this is done easily enough. Just have one of the characters pass by a television screen so they can notice the news ticker warning citizens about martial law being put into effect or catch the speech of a religious leader calling what’s happening a sign of the end times. Arrival does this much better—which, in this case, means more subtly—than Contact’s myopic focus on religious fanaticism but not nearly as well as Sign’s ambiguous levels of danger and societal chaos.
The only explosion in Arrival occurs after two low-ranking soldiers get the idea from a talk-radio, Alex-Jones-type that the government is mishandling the “alien invasion” and are purposely keeping citizens ignorant of the situation, so they plant a bomb in the antechamber where the science team communicates with the aliens. A movie viewer would expect such a sudden intrusion of violence to add suspense and capture paranoid sentiments, but with the way it’s fitted into the rest of the film, it ends up adding neither. Similar to the terrorist attack in Contact, the explosion merely pushes the story forward without giving the viewer any real sense of urgency or doom.
[Warning: spoilers follow]
In motion pictures, ideas are usually presented through characters, and Amy Adams’s performance as Louise is a master work in putting forward a film’s thematic concepts. As Louise begins to better understand the alien language, she starts thinking in it as well. One peculiar feature of the language is that it doesn’t have tenses and is the same character-wise forward and backward. Sounds from the past, present, and future begin overlapping in Louise’s mind, and events that viewers were led to believe happened before the alien arrival are revealed to actually happen afterward. There’s no such thing as objective temporal succession; instead, everything is unified in a simultaneous, boundless now. (Time feels so claustrophobic to us because it seems to always be moving, and Villeneuve captures this phobic anxiety with the aforementioned ambient score.) Louise wrestles with her memories of the future and if she should use her foreknowledge to influence the present.
If the film’s presumptions of memory, time, and order come across as muddled , trust that this will cease to matter much once you’re watching Adams deal with the joy and grief of their consequences. Likewise with Villeneuve’s go-nowhere plot—although it isn’t right to say, as some critics have, that Villeneuve ditches a pay-off at the end, because he never really compels the viewer to invest much in the plot to begin with.
Arrival isn’t necessarily a great film, but it is an exhibition in all the necessary conditions required to make one. Perhaps its shortcomings are intentional symbolic gestures, meant to mimic its ethical beats about our fears of the unknown and the dangers that come with our failures to communicate, but they are shortcomings nonetheless and no less redeemable simply because they might have a point.