Main cast: Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel GT Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent David Halpern), Tzi Ma (General Shang), and Mark O’Brien (Captain Marks)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Arrival is based on a novella, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, but it is a movie that runs almost two hours, and there lies its problem. The premise is intriguing, but the execution is quite messy. Oh, I’m going to be dipping into major spoilers here, as I can’t avoid mentioning them while explaining my issues with this movie. There’s no point using spoiler bars, therefore, and hence, please do the necessary and hit the back button if you wish to watch the movie anytime soon and you don’t want to be spoiled.
The aliens are coming! Twelve disc-shaped spaceship things land on Earth – naturally, China, India, America, and other places that every alien in every movie of this sort have marked on their map as “the only places that matter” – and the governments are in a tizzy. Louise Banks, our linguist expert, is practically pulled from her home to the American military post set up near the spaceship that opts for an American landing spot, in order to decipher what the aliens are trying to tell them. Also with her is Ian Donnelly, the physicist who will assist in more scientific matters. Naturally, China wants to just blow everything up, but to appease the real life Chinese government who may be offended enough to ban this movie from that country, the movie portrays China as the boss of Asian countries as well as Russia. Let’s see how well that works out.
Anyway, this movie attempts to combine the intricacies of linguistics and physics, and it also incorporates an interesting interpretation of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which states that the language you are well-versed in can actually influence the way you perceive things around you. In the case of the friendly Cthulhu-folks, they have a unique language that breaks the barriers of time, allowing them to see events that will happen in the future. As Louise becomes more adept at understanding and translating their language, she not only has to find a way to get the governments of various countries to work together instead of nuking the aliens, she only realizes that she can see her own future. The good thing is that her glimpse of the future allows her to discover a way to stop China from leading the alien nuke-down. This comes with a tragic price: she can also see her own future. More specifically, how she and Ian would marry and have a daughter, but there is no happy ending for all three of them.
In many ways, I wish I can give Arrival a higher score, because I do enjoy watching it. I’m glad I did, as it has an intelligent plot woven with plot elements that can be hard-hitting and even heartbreaking at many places. It also asks, effectively, the audience to put themselves in Louise’s shoes: if you know that the future promises only heartbreak after a brief moment of happiness, would you still seize a chance at getting that temporary happiness? I’m personally glad that I can’t tell the future, because Louise has to make a choice that is not easy at all, and I don’t envy her “gift”. The cast members put up a good show here, and even Forest Whitaker doesn’t annoy like he normally does, so yes, the movie is worth a look, if you ask me.
But my goodness, the pacing. The director is one of those annoying types that think it is edgy to focus on the lead actress’s face when important things are happening, so I get scenes of Louise listening to news report frantically reporting the arrival of the spaceships, but the camera does a close up on Amy Adams’s face instead of showing me scenes of the alien ships landing or anything else that would be far more interesting than five minutes of close-up at Ms Adam’s shocked expression. Also, the camera loves to go out of focus, so when Louise drives up to her home, the car is at the lower end of the screen while the trees along the path hog up the rest of the screen real estate. Either the movie is going for edgy but confusing that for dodgy camerawork, or the camera crew is drunk and they all ran out of money for reshoots.
After a while, I can get used to the annoying camera work, but then I notice the spotty pacing. For way too long, things unfurl leisurely, only to have a tidal wave of revelations clumsily flung at me in the last thirty minutes. Surely they could have dropped revelations at a less frantic manner? Or maybe they should have followed the narrative structure of the short story, which would have allowed the “flashbacks” to Louise’s future to be spaced more reasonably throughout the movie instead of cramming everything in the final act.
At any rate, I do like this movie, as I’ve said. It’s a shame that I can’t overlook how the execution fails to come together better. I can’t in good conscience give this one more than three oogies, as much as my heart tells me to, but don’t let the rating stop you from giving this one a try.