By Laurie Coker
After this bizarre election year, nothing should surprise us, not even the arrival of aliens from another planet. While communication and unity seem to be eluding us of late, Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, plays on these premises that we, flawed humans, need to stop, look within and must “all get along.” It harbors weightier messages also but takes too much time delivering them. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is heavy handed on its themes and cumbersome pacing, too much so, but it is stunningly visual and surprisingly contemplative. Unfortunately, the more reflection on the film, the more overbearing and blatant the message appears.
Early on in Arrival, Villeneuve working from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, captures viewers with the film’s exceptional cinematography and its imaginative sci-fi set and dynamic lead characters – all remarkable and mesmerizing. The story, however, is far narrower than the imagery promotes, focusing on Louise (Adams), a linguistics college professor still mourning the death of her teenage daughter and scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner), a man looking for scientific answers after 12 UFOs land in various locales across the globe. The American landing site is in Montana. Louise and Ian come together after she is asked by a U.S. Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) to try to communicate with the aliens to find out if they’re dangerous and whether or not the U.S. should brace for an attack. Louise, on whom the film and the state of the world turns, immediately gains ground in her plight to communicate, and in the wake of her efforts, she learns about herself, her life and the future.
Almost everything is seemingly perfect about this film. The cast, the imagery, and the concept, but ultimately, it falters on long drawn out moments within scenes that make the film feel far too long. Arrival is based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a tale about aliens coming to Earth, and he uses it as a vehicle for exploring subjects like the principle of least time and the concept that humans lack free will. The movie preserves most of that stuff — that forces thought about spoken and written language and communication. Fortunately, filmmakers manage to make the content more accessible, and the experience entertaining, complete with explosions and an exciting race-to-the-finish finale. Unfortunately, pacing pounds laboriously along in several sequences, and while Adams is an excellent actress; close-up shots on her face do little to help speed things up.
Another unfortunate aspect of Arrival lies in the thoughts and conversations that ensue after the film. Here reason takes over and common sense too. Easily, there is a great deal of good to Arrival, but not because it clearly delivers its messages, but rather because of its awesome leading actors and the overall visual appeal of the set and scenery. The aliens don’t impress much, looking a good deal like octopi – only “Abbott and Costello (Louise’s name for them) have seven, not eight legs. I am putting a C+ in my grade book. Some will think it deserves much higher and in some ways it does, but as a whole, it does not.