When it comes to movies about aliens, there are only two choices: Either they come in peace, or they’re looking to invade the planet. If it’s the latter option, then any idea of communication is usually null and void from the start. But if it’s the former, then figuring out exactly how to talk to the aliens is of paramount importance.
The entire plot of Arrival is based around communication, although for most of the running time it’s unclear what the intentions of the aliens are. All we know is that 12 shell-shaped ships have parked themselves at various points around the world, and it’s up to people like linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher the aliens’ language before things go too far.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival is a heady sci-fi dive into language, time, and what it means to be human. But what it isn’t is very satisfying, at least for anybody expecting anything momentous to happen. Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer spend close to two hours teasing something that never actually comes.
What they do give us is a lot of introspection, especially in the case of Banks, who occasionally has flashes of spending time with her daughter. These flashes serve to make her the emotional center of the film and to give further insight into her thought processes.
The bulk of the film is spent watching Banks and Donnelly trying to decipher the mysterious written language that the aliens spray onto a screen separating them from the humans on the spaceship. A drawn-out mystery can be fun, but the audience must also share the process of discovery, something that never truly happens.
The “aha!” moments of the film mostly take place in the minds of the characters, leaving little for the audience to hold on to. The only truly interesting twist to take place is hinted at so strongly throughout the film that when it’s finally revealed, it’s a letdown for not being more shocking.
Adams is a definite force in the film, playing a woman who’s at ease as both a professional and a mother. But she mostly stands alone, as Renner is rarely given anything useful to do, and the take-charge nature of Whitaker’s character is undone by his wholly unnecessary usage of a poor Boston accent.
Villeneuve fantastically upended expectations in his previous two films, but he seems to have overestimated the appeal of Arrival’s story. It’s a lot of brainy sci-fi that fails to deliver when it really counts.