‘Arrival’ MOVIE REVIEW: Filmmaking Prowess Held Back by Showy Hokum

Image via Roadshow Films
Image via Roadshow Films

Whenever alien first-contact films arrive on the scene they are immediately comparable to other titles. The same can be said for a multitude of genres, however when it comes to this particular brand of film, the similarities are all too obvious to ignore. Whether it was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, they’ve all shared the same qualities, notably their attempt to inject humanity into the stories.

Arrival is the latest offering and all of its worth can be attributed to its attempt to rationalise and humanise the events that unfold. Twelve spacecrafts appear at seemingly random locations throughout the world, and their intentions are unknown. When the military’s efforts to communicate with the aliens fail, they enlist the aid of a renowned linguist (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner). With only a short window of time and no precedent to rely on, the two experts make contact and attempt to unlock what appears to be a highly complex extra-terrestrial language.

Image via Roadshow Films
Image via Roadshow Films

What entails is a drama that works within the perimeters of science fiction and explores the barriers of language in great depth. The story mostly takes place within the alien ship itself and at the military ground-base beside it; simple settings, but used well. And while there is a reliable use of digital effects to depict the aliens, the focus is squarely on the human crisis. When our two trusted specialists manage to decipher the words “give weapon”, the question of its meaning becomes the crux of the film – it could be an act of war against mankind, or it could be a peace offering.

This is a good-looking film to say the least, and of the first-contact films that come to mind, it is perhaps on of the most authentic. Adams and Renner offer up proficient performances and have the trustworthy support of Forrest Whittaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. The UFO conception is original and unique, as is the pseudo-science used to depict the environment within. All logic is abandoned in a space where physics and gravity are forsaken and a new science exists.

Yet, as compelling as the human/alien interaction may be, the film falls back on a murky and contrived revelatory final act. It becomes metaphorical and existential, which is all well and good, but the complexities here eventually outweigh the plausibilities. Filmmakers often attempt to explore more psychological, more personal, human elements with sci-fi, a combination that can work wonders if done right and one that can easily cross over a thin pretentious line if mishandled. Alas, Arrival falls to the latter. The existential and somewhat abstract theories here are certainly fascinating in their own right, but are unfortunately worked into the narrative in tedious, overly sentimental fashion.

Image via Roadshow Films
Image via Roadshow Films

To focus on the positives, Arrival’s technical aspects are outstanding. The score and the sound design are thoroughly engaging, while the cinematography is, at all times, masterful. The screen’s aspect ration is used effectively to bring scope and points of reference to the events that unfold, while the production design is innovative and original.

Regardless of the narrative direction that director Dennis Villeneuve chose to take, he has put together a spectacle that begs to be seen on the big screen, and having seen previously made films such as Sicario, Enemy and Prisoners, I would consider Arrival to be only a slight diversion in what is otherwise a stellar resume of films. He has been tasked with helming the upcoming Bladerunner sequel, and perhaps this is the opportunity for him to hone his sci-fi skills, in which case a decent effort, albeit too highfalutin for this unaffected reviewer.