From the moment I saw this trailer, I screamed at the screen, “Shut up and take my money!” I was so excited about this movie. My impression is that it’s less about sci-fi, and more about a study on what people would really do if they encountered alien life. “The difference between a weapon and a tool, language being messy and sometimes one can be both.” Oh my god, Amy Adams looks like she’s going to captain this ship like a boss. I hope to see this be more focused on drama, learning about another species, but I do notice that humans will be losing their shit as events unfold. I just hope it’s not going to result in an overblown war film at the end. It’d be nice if it was just teetering on whether or not it might. In any case, this is really the only movie I’m looking forward to this week.
So let’s take a look at the cast. Adams, like a lot of people, didn’t pop onto my radar until ENCHANTED (2007), and I fell in love with her, again, like most people did. Of course, it wasn’t until THE FIGHTER (2010) that it became clear that she didn’t want to be known for her one-shot Disney role. She wanted to be taken seriously, and she certainly has been. Currently one of the most popular actresses working right now, she’s been a .50 bullet of talent from AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) to BIG EYES (2014). I sure am a fan and can’t wait to see what she brings here. C0-starring is Jeremy Renner. I first became aware of him when I saw THE HURT LOCKER (2008). While many love that movie, it’s not my favorite. It was boring and I didn’t like Renner’s character that much. I didn’t much think about Renner until his uncredited turn as Hawkeye in THOR (2011). Again, didn’t much care about him until his role in arguably the best Mission: Impossible film, GHOST PROTOCOL (2011). Ever since that and THE AVENGERS (2012), he’s been a fine treat on the big screen. While I’m not his biggest fan, I do mostly enjoy his work and acknowledge that he’s a good actor. I only say “mostly” enjoy his work because of that dreadful BOURNE LEGACY (2012). And fun fact, Renner and Adams are reuniting from AMERICAN HUSTLE. Finally, the legendary Forest Whitaker. I can’t remember if I SPECIES (1995) or PANIC ROOM (2002) was the first movie I saw him in. I guess it doesn’t matter because it probably one of the most prolific and celebrated actors in Hollywood, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s got mad talent as the guy who talks… and you listen. You listen because Whitaker has something to say and you listen to that shit, know what I mean? I love this man’s work. From PHONE BOOTH (2002), to SOUTHPAW (2015), this man can do no wrong. Er… well, BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000), but we’ll blame John Travolta for that one, not Whitaker. And the fact that he’s going to be in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY later this year as well as the solo BLACK PANTHER (2018) movie, this man’s going to be a popular face in the coming years.
Now for behind the scenes. Directing is Denis Villeneuve, known for SICARIO (2015) and PRISONERS (2013). He’s also slated to direct BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017). Penning the screenplay is Eric Heisserer, known for LIGHTS OUT (2016), THE THING (2011), and FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011). He’s also slated to write VAN HELSING due out… sometime in the future. Composing the music is Jóhann Jóhannsson, known for SICARIO, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014), and PRISONERS. He’s also slated to compose for BLADE RUNNER 2049. Finally, the cinematographer is Bradford Young, a big player in 2015 for SELMA, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, and PAWN SACRIFICE.
Overall, super pumped for this film. This is my honest opinion of ARRIVAL.
When the alien vessels arrived, it naturally caused a worldwide mix of emotions. The military is obviously extremely paranoid, but initial communications have proven to only make things worse as they don’t understand each other. That’s when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) decided to bring in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a former aide to government military, to help translate the alien language. Bringing her directly to one of the vessels, she makes contact with one of the mammoth-sized heptapods, with a giant glass wall to separate them. Initial contact is rocky, but as time passes and the heptapods begin to share their version of written writing, progress isn’t so smoothly for other countries as China begins to take a stand, nearing a declaration of war against the aliens and urging other countries to follow suit, making it a race against time to understand why the aliens are here.
Before I get into it, a little story about my viewing experience. Sitting in front of me was this skinny old woman who fancied herself to be a film buff. Yet throughout the majority of the film, she’s practically shouting how this movie is, “strange,” or, “not what I expected.” Um… okay, well I knew what this movie would be, so would you shut your mouth, you old hag? So heads up to the rest of you who are silly enough to think that this movie is anything like INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), stop thinking that. It’s a drama about out first contact with extraterrestrial life and the process of understanding them. It’s a character study, not an action film or a CG fest.
This film is ingeniously set up. Twelve spacecrafts show up out of nowhere and because there’s a communication barrier, there really is no telling what exactly they’re here for. Their initial encounters with the aliens are borderline staring contests and making noises at each other. Hardly anyone gets anywhere until Louise is brought into the picture. Even when she makes progress in cracking their “written” language, their grammar could, in retrospect, mean anything. “Offer weapon.” Oh shit, homes! The hell does that mean, yo?! There’s actually a surprising amount of avenues explored making one of the rare “smart people movies” that I can actually follow and thoroughly enjoy. If I didn’t know any better, the film-makers actually spoke to, like, NASA or something and asked what the official procedure would be if they came into contact with aliens and then threw in some drama in the form of paranoid government and military dudes.
To be fair, it’s not like this isn’t realistic. In fact, this is another one of those rare moments where the frustrations of character choices is actually part of why it’s great. Aliens? Yeah, that puts shit into perspective. It makes people question things, like, what’s real? What have we discovered? What are we about to let in? It’s no real wonder why certain parties would react negatively. Perhaps a criticism could be that only America seems to be the ones that seem to make any real progress toward communication with the heptapods. Really? Literally only one woman and one man is smart enough to decode the language barrier? No other country has a linguist of equal or greater skill than Louise? But then again, there are moments in the movie when a country will kill their one of their own people in order to keep their respective secrets, so maybe they did get a little something-something that they weren’t willing to share. For what reasons, who can say? I guess you just sort of decide what you want to believe as there isn’t any clear answer. This story is in Louise’s perspective. Not the perspective of the world at large.
And speaking of Louise, Adams brings her A-game once again. She’s the everywoman who has a normal job, did some great things in the past, living a normal life, but is brilliant and only want humanity’s first encounter with the aliens to be smooth experience. But as the powers that be continue to get more paranoid, making the learning process on both sides increasingly more difficult, she fights harder to understand the heptapods before something horrible happens. She’s daring, but not beyond fear. In fact, the first moment she goes into the spacecraft, she’s petrified of going inside. It takes Colonel Weber to carry her inside. It’s a lot more gentle than I’m making it out to be.
I’m a tad conflicted about Renner’s character, Ian. Don’t get me wrong, Renner’s performance is fine in the film, but I’m not sure what exactly Ian brings to the movie. Take him out, what’s really lost? He does pretty much everything that Adams does. I don’t recall him doing anything unique, other than kind of saving her ass toward the end… which again, she was fine where she was… eh, you’ll understand if you see the movie. I guess he doesn’t bring the movie down, or anything. I could interpret his character as the one human that actually takes her side in making the “understanding one another” process a slow and peaceful one.
And yeah, in Louise’s future, the father of her daughter fated to die young is revealed to be Ian, but the story could easily have made his identity ambiguous.
Whitaker may be a tad cliché for my taste, but unless you have a story about a morally conflicted career soldier, there’s really not much room for depth in a character like Colonel Weber. He has his orders and he has to follow them. He does display some hints of stupidity, like when he says, “You were able to decipher that middle eastern language,” to which Louise replies, “Because I already speak that language, bro. I don’t speak alien.” Paraphrased, of course, but that is the general idea of that exchange. It is weird that he thinks just because someone is a linguist automatically means they know, or can understand, any language thrown at them. I’m sorry, I might buy that military and political folk need immediate answers to uncertain situations, but borderline panic and prayer for miracles makes those military and political folk seem stupid. In real life, we kind of accept that. In movies, let’s leave room to make them seem more grounded and realistic than real.
But honestly, for all the movie’s downish-sides, I’m not really thinking about it that much in the moment of watching the film and I really debate how much I care about them even now. It feels like this could really be how we would communicate with alien life and our first steps into a larger world. And yes, that was a Star Wars reference. But in all seriousness, it’s definitely a more subtle sci-fi flick, so don’t expect big action. Just expect big ships, big aliens, big stakes, and even bigger acting from the core cast who really nail it. I loved this fascinating story and I hope to watch it again in the near future.
My honest rating for ARRIVAL: 5/5
- ALMOST CHRISTMAS