Denis Villenueve’s now trademark tension and sombre atmosphere return, this time in the form on an alien invasion movie; Lee and newstart Lawrence review.
[While not a spoiler review, there are elements of Arrival and its mystery set-up that work best without even a vague hint of where the story will go. If this really matters to you, skip to the grade and assess from that. Otherwise, read on.]
After all is said and done, there’s something akin to optimism in Arrival’s ending; an outlook that rarely factors into the vast majority of its story. Part-calloused look at humanity and its state right now in 2016, part-thesis on the importance of communication, part-movie with movie bits hanging off it trying to be something; here we have a film that, as great science fiction should, uses the big ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ to tackle the grander ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ while also attempting to maintain a casual audience.
Thus we get tension and dread, basic communicative emotions that transcend the narrative to keep the audience in their seats. This is critical fiction; using the narrative of cinema to impress upon a mass audience critical concepts and, to keep people interested in what is essentially lecturing, tactically tricking us to stay invested. Easier to grasp notions such as imminent danger, countdown clocks on explosives and the one-two punch of alien imagery against looming swells in the score connect with viewers easier than a think-piece on time, memory and human indignance.
What’s important to note is Arrival pulls this off with incredible ease. The story, slow at first, builds and builds constantly until the third act crescendos with reveal after reveal that nearly wholly satisfies as much as it enriches the previous acts’ content. Narrative structure is neatly revolved around a science fiction gimmick that actually benefits the story being told, as well as the themes represented therein, with a few inversions here and there to keep things interesting. Match this with gorgeous visuals, designs that manage to straddle both the needs of the surface narrative as well as the thematic narrative, and a genuinely gripping story of political decline in the face of worldwide issues and you have a reasonably accessible middle-brow movie that feels ripe for both moderate consumption and general study; not an easy line to tow.
There are issues: hints of a character story with emotional pay-off only work in a grander sense, in that we understand the hard decisions taken and sympathise with our dogged lead Louise as she makes the call each time, but outside some nice connecting dots and little hints of dialogue we never really gain insight into the relationships established by her to understand why we should really feel the weight of her choices. We’re asked to bring a little of our own baggage to the movie and project it onto Louise, and that’s perhaps asking too much in a film as high concept as this.
Also while ambiguity is used to an incredible effect throughout Arrival, particularly with the aliens, there are a number of questions left at the end that we don’t need an answer to, per say, but even a hint of how the conflict’s resolution might resolve some of the lingering issues would help us distinguish whether this ending was optimistic or blindly optimistic. There’s an important difference, especially in science fiction.
Still, it’s cutting and cynical take on humanity feels earned and well-explored, it’s characters understandable and not particularly likeable which is fresh and its greater explorations and ideas fun and fanciful. It might not be the big win over audiences it hopes to be, but its intentions are in the right place; who could ask for more?
It isn’t very often that I go into a movie completely blind nowadays; I’m a cautionary consumer who likes to know that he’s getting his money’s worth when he buys something, so aside from sensitive plot information I often already know what to expect when I go see a film. But in this instance I was in the unfamiliar (and ultimately enviable) position of experiencing Arrival with nothing to go on short of a brief and slightly misleading YouTube ad trailer, and a vague idea of the director’s previous work. If you like low-concept, hard science fiction, I recommend you do the same; this is a mystery-driven movie.
What followed was an exceptionally tense hour and a half shortly followed by the movie whipping off its veil to exclaim “Aha! It was I, Interstellar, all along!”
I should clarify that despite its flaws, I really liked Interstellar, and that this comparison is not necessarily to Arrival’s detriment. It’s just that the flaws that mar Interstellar are present here too, albeit in subtler form. Characters that should know better requiring things to be explained to them for the audiences’ benefit? Tick! Well-meaning but sudden bursts of overpowering sentimentality in an otherwise science-heavy film? Check! Dialogue just short of utterly contrived in order to emphasis a theme? Present and accounted for!
As an example of the above: The Colonel that brought our main lead (Amy Adams), who is a linguist to the site, explicitly to learn how to communicate with the aliens, demands to know what she intends to do with… a whiteboard and marker, prompting an explanation on written language for all us normies in the peanut gallery.
The homeland security representative, when told the aliens are deliberately keeping their “negotiation room” at atmospheric conditions unnatural to them for the comfort of the human interpreters, dramatically intones: “Do you mean to say they could suffocate you at any time?”* This ties in to a central theme that humanity’s weakness is its own ignorance and mistrust (sound familiar?). Considering the stakes and circumstances, this is an absurd concern to express. Surely if negotiations had deteriorated to such a point that the aliens would be so petty, would the subsequent interplanetary war not be a more noteworthy concern?
And it has what may be the tackiest romantic one-liner I’ve seen in bloody ages. Obviously your mileage may vary, but it flies past so-bad-it’s-good straight back into “just awful” territory for me.
I must say that I am very curious indeed as to how this movie will play in the Chinese market. While the circumstances are complex and they do receive a sympathetic human connection late in the film, China is depicted as an aggressive and antagonistic force throughout the movie. Will be keeping a close eye on the numbers here.
In conclusion: it’s a tightly-directed, well-acted and rock solid science-fiction film, with a bit of schmaltz on the side. The aliens are just the right level of eldritch; too much fiction likes to cheat by giving their aliens human features, none of that here! Nice and otherworldly. If you like hard science fiction and have the patience for a slow-burner, this comes well recommended.