Directed by: Dennis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Amy Adams: as Dr. Louise Banks
Jeremy Renner: as Dr. Ian Donnelly
Forest Whittaker: as Col. Weber
Abigail Pniowsky: as 8-year -old Hannah
Julia Scarlett Dan: as 12-year-old Hannah
I like Amy Adams. More specifically, I love her nose. She’s a fine young actress, and I’ve enjoyed her work in a variety of movies. Likewise, I’ve enjoyed Jeremy Renner in the Marvel superhero movies, and in his turn in the Bourne saga. Unfortunately, In Arrival, his role primarily consists of scowling, Renner is nearly a frowning piece of the set, and Adams’ role consists primarily of looking mystified about a great many things. In that, she mimics the audience, who leave the theater mostly confused, and feeling slightly annoyed.
This annoyance is not like that provoked by the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s book The Sentinel, and was the first of a series of novels. The end of 2001 wasn’t the end of the story. Cinematically 2010 (1984) was a fitting explanation that didn’t rely on Clarke’s novels for resolution. Arrival is a one-off movie based on a novella, and while some critics praised it to the heavens, I can’t share their politically correct enthusiasm.
As Arrival is already out on DVD–which is how I saw it–I’ll not worry about revealing any surprises; there really aren’t any, just confusion. The politically correct element is very simple. Twelve huge spacecraft, or perhaps interdimensional, perhaps even time traveling, ships appear around the world. The American ship–all of them resemble a huge black potato chip–is hovering 20 or so feet above a field in Montana. In short, courageous and brilliant scientists want peace, the nasty, militaristic military wants to blow up the peaceful and helpful aliens, and there is sort of time traveling which causes the most brilliant and pert-nosed scientist to risk her life–sort of–to save the aliens and the world, and the potatoships flop over on their sides and disappear, and everybody lives happily ever after, but are mystified.
To sum up, the evil military wants to blow up peaceful aliens. A scientist–I’m sure she’s not a global warming denier–saves the aliens and the world, and the UN probably gets a huge infusion of cash from the US treasury, which they use to berate Israel and support terrorists. What progressive critic wouldn’t like that plot?
The movie is filmed in Dark-O-Vision. Apparently Villeneuve is one of those directors for whom an absence of stage lighting gives a film gravitas. Accordingly, everything is dark. Montana, big sky country, isn’t, and everything, all the time, looks like ten seconds before a massive thunderstorm hits. Montana may be home, home on the range, but the skies are definitely cloudy all day. There is only a single daylight scene depicted, and that’s dark too. The interiors of the tents set up at the site for researchers are terribly dimly lit–it’s a wonder all of them don’t go blind–and every other scene, from Adam’s office at her university, to her home, is in the dark. The interior of the potatoship is darker than dark, and many scenes consist of the sound of people moving slowly, against a completely blank–black–screen.
Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks is a brilliant linguist, and at first, the Army doesn’t want her, even though they know she is the best in the world, because she might like the aliens too much, but of course, they need her, and reluctantly bring her along, where she runs into Renner, another brilliant scientist, who is actually her husband, but he’s not, and they don’t seem to know they were married, and they have a daughter, who died of some unnamed disease, but we keep seeing her pop up in what seem like uncoordinated and meaningless flashbacks–that’s Hannah–where Adams looks weepily and longingly at the girl as she lays motionless and speechless. And while Adams is doing this, the film keeps flashing back or forward, or something, to Adams looking mystified. Is it a flashback? Is Dr. Banks going loony? Are the aliens playing with her mind? Is she suffering from Trump derangement syndrome? Or is the script merely badly written and incomprehensible?
Meanwhile, we meet the aliens who resemble enormous black, eyeless squid, though they’re called heptapods, for the number of tentacles they have. First contact theorists suggest that when and if we meet an alien species, we may never be able to communicate with them because they’ll be so alien. We’ll have no common frames of reference, nothing upon which to base communication. And so it seems, but there has to be some sort of communication–the screenwriter and director don’t seem to think there needs to be communication with the audience–to move the plot the miniscule distance it eventually moves, so the aliens, who Adams scientifically names Abott and Costello–I’m not kidding; be glad it’s not Mickey and Minnie–squirt ink in circular patterns, which Adams eventually, though the light is so dim it’s amazing she can see her fingernails, sort of deciphers.
In the meantime, the world is getting panicky, though Abbott and Costello have done nothing to anyone, and China is about to nuc the potatoship hovering over China. At the very last moment, Costello tells Adams she has a weapon and must use it to help the aliens who will need the human’s help in 30,000 years, or something, so Adams travels in time to a future dinner, where she looks mystified, and where a Chinese general thanks her for giving him a call and telling him something about his wife, which causes him not to nuc the potatoship, and saves the aliens and the world and the universe and probably stops global warming too. Oh, he gives her his phone number, and she just happens to snatch up a nearby satellite phone–she traveled back to the present then, but still looks mystified–and calls the Chinese general and speaks to him in Chinese–she’s a linguist, you know–telling him what the general just told her in the future, but it’s the present, maybe, and some soldiers and an agent guy want to shoot her to stop her, but Renner gets between them and they don’t get shot, and Renner and Adams hug, and she remembers how swell it was to hug him, and that’s pretty much the movie.
There are many science fiction movies that have done time travel far more effectively. It’s a fascinating concept, but difficult to understand. Arrival adds nothing to understanding. Adams’ travels look like flashbacks, most of which find the audience watching Adams watching her daughter, of various ages, dying, or maybe dead already. We eventually learn though a brief outburst from Adams that the aliens do not experience time in a linear manner like we do, but that doesn’t explain how she is flipping all over time for no apparent logical reason, and why she seems to be the only person having direct contact with the aliens that are doing it. This causes many people, while she is sitting there mystified while she’s time traveling, to look at her, mystified, thinking the good Dr. is not quite right in her pretty red-headed head.
No, she doesn’t save her daughter; she’s still dead from an unnamed disease. What’s the point of time traveling if you can’t even save your daughter, or perhaps visit her once again, as in the vastly superior Interstellar? In Arrival, we have no idea what happened to the aliens. Will they be back? What’s up in 30,000 years, and are those linear years, or flashback/forward, sideways years? What, if anything, did the aliens leave or give mankind? There is no indication whatever.
The movie is, according to some critics, the story of Louise Banks, and Adams certainly has most of the screen time and dialogue, such as it is, but about all the audience can get from the story is she’s a linguist, has a great nose, her daughter died, she was married once, sometime, and might be again, sometime, and she kept the Chinese and pretty much every military everywhere from frying the potatoships, which almost immediately vanished, and oh yes, her daughter died, and we leave Louise Banks looking wistful and mystified, but less, no doubt, than the audience.
I do not mourn the lack of space battles, light sabers, X-wing fighters, etc. Nor does every science fiction movie have to be full of derring-do, and swashbuckling action. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), has little of that, and is justly a classic. What it has, and what Arrival lacks, is a linear, comprehensible plot.
Arrival, in terms of production values, is a well made, contemporary movie, its artificially dark and gloomy affect aside. However, it is probably best left to the $5.00 bin at WalMart. It won’t be long before it can be found there. If you want a science fiction movie–actually two–which are puzzling, but ultimately, explained and hopeful, go for 2001 and 2010. They’re a much better use of time and money.