Review by C.J. Bunce
A diehard science fiction moviegoer will probably find nothing new in last year’s nominee for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Arrival. Nearly every minute of the film can be seen in countless episodes of science fiction television. But it is the next drama cloaked in science fiction dress, trying to one-up Interstellar, Gravity, and Contact. Following the Michael Crichton stylebook, Arrival gives us a problem (terrifying, giant squid-like, alien monsters referred to as heptapods we cannot yet understand) and brings in a team of experts to work to solve that problem. The experts are linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. And that’s all–no other brilliant scientists play any role. From a storytelling angle this allows more of a focus on the two characters, primarily Banks, but it also defies belief that one of twelve Earth-visiting space monolith ships is in the U.S. and only a M*A*S*H unit full of people are there to find the solution. Those that are present are canned, stupid government wonks, including an intermediary military officer played by Forest Whitaker and others who shout a lot and want to bomb the aliens. It all makes you want to cheer for the aliens.
To its credit Arrival deals head on with what is surprisingly one of the least pursued tropes in science fiction: communication with the aliens.
Every major sci-fi franchise tells us these aliens will be humanoid, but what if they aren’t? Actually communicating with other beings once we have that first alien encounter has been seen from time to time, the best in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darmok. And who can forget those musical notes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Most of Star Trek, and other sci-fi, circumvents the communication issue with the story device of a universal translator or the equivalent, so the conflict of Arrival is refreshing. Unfortunately the pursuit of the problem in Arrival could have been more interesting and compelling. Instead the filmmakers made the choice to break away frequently, delving back and forth into an emotional character study.
The best of Arrival is the mood in the first half of the film, which borrows plenty from the M. Night Shyamalan playbook, like that strange sense of wonder and uncertainty from Lady in the Water, and the camera trickery and horror elements of Signs. As we experience all those feelings and ideas conveyed in a laundry list of prior sci-fi films–everything from The Thing to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and even E.T., the Extra-terrestrial and Super 8–the fun is anticipating which alien-human relationship ultimately will be revealed–friend, foe, or something else? But any fun that could be had is shadowed by the grim mood, haunting images of Bank’s child who died young and Bank’s foggy relationship with her estranged husband, and a slow pace, outside the more compelling actual communications with the aliens.
Ultimately we only really get to know Banks, as she uses her own experiences to try to befriend the aliens. In the end, don’t expect anything to feel good about. Arrival manages to be completely devoid of any humor. Unfortunately Arrival amounts to a reboot of Contact, complete with sabotage and a deux ex machina savior to wrap it all up. Another misfire is the presence of a dead, prior linguist expert, shown early on, hinting that one of the show’s heroes will be faced with a similar death. Yet we never learn who he was or why he died. And why another 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired giant black monolith? Another sci-fi genre Academy Award nominee handled so much Arrival was aiming for much better, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
Arrival is not a bad film. Although you can spend too much time trying to analyze why anyone thought it merited so many Oscar nominations, compared to the average hyped mainstream drama Arrival is a film you will not likely walk away from completely disappointed. It’s worth a first watch for the interactions with the aliens, for the set-up and the Shyamalan-esque stylings in the first half of the film, but Arrival is not likely to bring you back for future viewings. Arrival is now streaming on Amazon here, Vudu, and other streaming services, as well as home releases on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and DVD at Amazon here.