Space movies have seen a resurgence in recent years, from the puzzles and time travel of “Interstellar” to the survival drama and wisecracks of “The Martian.” Later this year, Ridley Scott will add yet another installment to his ongoing “Aliens” series. But while most science fiction leans towards the space opera of “Star Wars,” the faux-realism of “Gravity,” or the thrills of “Alien,” “Arrival” forges its own path, creating a restrained character drama with a weird edge reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Anyone who’s seen that trippy, slow-moving epic will know it’s hardly designed for the kinetic, fan-service-obsessed blockbuster movie scene. That makes “Arrival”—courageously artsy but frustratingly self-serious—all the more unusual.
When aliens land in twelve locations around the world, Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) starts to assemble a team (not the Avengers!) to help communicate with the aliens. The key question: What is their purpose? What do they want? The aliens themselves—“heptapods”—are visualized with a dramatic, compelling strangeness unlike the colorful CGI cannon fodder mowed down in superhero flicks. These are extraterrestrials with style. They’re aliens that are actually alien.
E.T.-like, the heptapods’ mystery is compounded by their inability to communicate. They’re not inarticulate, but decoding their cryptic writing is a painstaking task. That’s where the human team comes in. The team includes Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a cheerful physicist who actually does very little in the movie except be cheerful, and Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics. Translating for heptapods from outer space is quite a change of pace for Louise. At the beginning of the movie, we see her teaching sparse classes of bored students and in an early “Up”-style montage, lose her daughter to disease. She’s alone, quiet, and…unhappy? We can’t really tell. Louise is difficult to read.
A significant chunk of the movie is made up of Louise’s attempts to understand the heptapods, employing both technology and horse sense to begin puzzling out the specifics of their language (the first message: “Be sure…to drink…your Ovaltine.” I kid, I kid). In the background, however, the world is descending into chaos, as nations grow impatient and anxious about potential invasion.
But “Arrival” doesn’t really want to be a thriller. All of the political paranoia, which is supposed to drive the action, feels by-the-numbers, a necessary backdrop for what the film’s really interested in: Louise’s clumsy, courageous steps towards understanding, and the personal revelations she encounters along the way.
From its meditative beginning, the film feels like a pastiche of auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick, who uses whispered, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers to communicate characters’ emotion. The stylistic debt is also apparent in the ending, which is sweeping and emotional, but lacking the joy and light touch found in the best Malick films.
The ultimate resolution to Louise’s visions is more complicated than the thinly-written mother-daughter storyline in “Gravity,” and more profound than the clumsily allegorical ending of “Interstellar,” but there’s still something missing. So much time is spent decoding alien writing that the human relationships are given short shrift, and when they become the plot’s focus, I was more interested in the philosophy than the characters. Louise’s daughter is a mere character sketch, and Ian isn’t much better. Louise herself is a good character, but distant. While communicating with aliens is fascinating stuff, what I was left wanting, in the end, was communication of a more terrestrial kind.
– Hannah Long