‘Arrival:’ Advance Film Review

The alien invasion picture has been a staple of the movie business since the space race of the 1950s opened people’s minds to imagine what may be out there in vastness beyond our solar system.  These films can often be filled with a sense of awe and spectacle, along with the contemplation of our place in the universe.  Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably still the high water mark for spaceship awe, with its slack-jawed vision of alien grandeur (The Devil’s Tower finale still holds up beautifully.), most recently imitated by Stranger Things.  But sometimes an alien invasion movie can be simply ludicrous.  With their B-movie origins, the alien invasion picture is more often than not pretty ridiculous.  In the '50s, the threat of an invasion was played up Cold War generated hysteria, like in the classics The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But lately, as this summer’s recent Independence Day sequel demonstrated, they can also be largely stupid and void of any real subtext. 

Director Denis Villeneuve has chosen to go down the smarter, more contemplative road with the fine alien invasion drama Arrival

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned college professor and language experts. When a dozen alien spacecraft suddenly appear and take up residence hovering a few feet above the surface, Dr. Banks is recruited by the military to help communicate with them.  She teams with a physicist named Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner) while Forest Whitaker watches on as a nervous Army colonel.

When making contact with the visitors, Dr. Banks tries to communicate with them through written language.  What she learns is the aliens’ (the humans name them “heptapods” for their seven tentacles) written language is vastly complicated and its circular sentence construction may indicate they don’t experience time in a linear, left-to-right fashion as Earth-bound humans do.

Although they are vastly different films with nearly opposing approaches to a close encounters story, Arrival reminded me quite a bit of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.  That film plays more like a spook house horror film, but both it and Arrival are ultimately far more interested in telling their protagonists’ stories. The aliens are just the conduit for putting those stories in motion.  As Dr. Banks becomes more and more immersed in the alien language, she begins to experience life in their language.  (At one point Renner’s character asks her, “When you dream, is it in their language?”  She does.)  The film also features a pretty nifty third act twist that is both smart and also doesn’t negate the first three quarters of the story.

I would imagine that, for some audiences, Arrival may be too cerebral and deliberate.  It’s much more of a character piece than a conventional action picture.  Fans of director Villeneuve’s last film, the kinetic, propulsive action thriller Sicario, may be disappointed that more doesn’t “happen” in this film. (He’s a very good choice to be doing the Blade Runner sequel, if such a thing needs to exist at all.)  These aliens aren’t here to harvest us or even just probe us, and it’s the nature of their visit that provides the film its central mystery.  Battleship this isn’t, and that’s a very good thing.

Adams has long been one of our top actors working today, and while she’s not given the kind of showy, tour de force role she had in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, she carries the movie with quiet intensity.  Despite his three Oscar nominations, I still think Jeremy Renner is one of our more underrated actors.  Is it just me, or does Civil War perk up a bit when Clint Barton finally shows up?  He doesn’t get a lot to do here, but he offers very solid support.  People who enjoy Forest Whitaker’s tendency to add odd tics to his characters are going to love his just-for-the-hell-of-it Boston accent.  Why not?

As much as Arrival tries to blaze its own unique trail, it still can’t avoid all the clichés of the genre, and it’s in these moments the picture is at its weakest.  Michael Stuhlbarg is a fine actor to be sure (Check out the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man if you haven’t already.), but here he’s saddled with the thankless job of a CIA operative who sees the aliens as nothing more than a threat.  Halt and Catch Fire’s Mark O’Brien suffers a similar fate as an Army officer driven to a foolish action by the paranoia of an Alex Jones-like radio host.  Both of these characters could actually exist if this were a real scenario playing out, but the screenplay by Eric Heisserer can’t figure out a fresh spin on these guys.  They exist as plot devices more than as actual people, and the roles mostly strand the actors who are doing the best they can.

And then there’s a slight issue with the creatures themselves.  They’re mostly seen through a white mist, so we never really get a really good look at them.  That does give them a creepy presence, and, in fact, their initial entrance through the mist is pretty effective.  But with their bulbous heads on top of bodies made up entirely of tentacles, they have more than a passing resemblance to Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons.  Sure they aren’t drooling or wearing transparent space helmets, but somebody had to have noticed this during pre-production, right?  It can’t just be me.

Cartoon aliens aside, Arrival is a classy, first-rate drama that values its humans above any extraterrestrial mayhem.

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