ARRIVAL Fails To Conquer Challenging Source Material

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The aliens arrive November 11, but the fun departs soon after.

I was supposed to like ARRIVAL, the new first encounter thriller starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. I wanted to love it, and sing it’s praises in high hyperbole. I wanted to tell you to walk out of Marvel’s excellent Doctor Strange and sneak in to watch this gem. I can’t though. I can’t because it’s a bit of a chore to sit through. Unnecessary subplots were an unwanted distraction. WARNING: SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT HEREAFTER!

Unlike a lot of Hollywood films these days, ARRIVAL hits the ground running for a change. Within minutes of the theater lights going dark, the aliens have arrived. Neat! How’s this going to go? Predictably, the hair-trigger governments of China and Russia are cooperating with the international coalition of scientists who were sharing data to determine the best course of action. That was predictable but felt accurate as we all know that there’s usually a right way to handle things, and then there’s the way totalitarian regimes (even those supposedly elected through free democracy) handle things. Before the inevitable Communist/Rest of us split occurs, plucky linguistic scientist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) is brought in by the U.S. military, represented by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Renner). The science team, escorted by the military, makes first contact.

The aliens are really pretty exciting, and I don’t think I can really do them justice describing them. They’re somewhere in between octopus, Cthulu, and the aliens from Independence Day. They communicate through incomprehensible grunts and an odd “written” language or circular wisps of dark ink, for lack of a better word. Since the film only a couple of hours long, and since the Russian and Chinese are rubbing their hands together in giddy anticipation of nuking the aliens back Alpha Centauri or wherever they’re from, the science team makes reasonably short work of learning their language enough to make some simple interactions.

If that’s all that this movie was I think I’d have liked it more. It’s actually fine to tell a slow-burn story about how humanity might actually respond to an alien race making first contact. The linguistics involved was interesting enough to me to carry to the load. Yes, you can use the military option as something of a timer for their efforts—the scientists have a strict deadline or its global war. That would add dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, we get a surreal subplot about whether or not Dr. Banks can see the future or if she’s flashing back to the past and the pain of her daughter losing a fight with cancer. Dr. Donnelly figures into that back story too, and it just felt like a waste of time. Yes, it’s in the original source material, Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” I get that. Far be it to argue with the validity of a story that won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000. My feeling is that the doctor’s perception of time being rewired by her comprehension of an alien language, which in turn gives her insight to her family’s future, is simply too much. I don’t particularly care if she makes decisions about her life based on visions she has. I want to know why the aliens are here, and what their intentions are. After all, they didn’t just land in Montana; there were alien vessels all over the planet. Every time the story jumped from the comprehension of alien language to those flashbacks where the story hints that Donnelley is the paterfamilias, of Dr. Banks’ doomed progeny I was immediately bored and pulled out of the narrative.

Director Denis Villeneuve had a heck of a task making something remotely comprehensible out of this material. He does his best, and a lot of folks I spoke with after the press screening claimed to love it or were still trying to wrap their heads around it. I found myself thinking about CONTACT, the 1997 Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey gem directed by Robert Zemeckis and adapted from the 1985 novel of the same name by America’s greatest science advocate of the time, the late great Carl Sagan. My only complaint about that film is that the alien looks exactly like actor David Morse, who played Jodie Foster’s father. The alien had the ability to appear as whatever the contact would find the least startling. That always felt like a cop-out, as if they spent too much on the cast and had to cut corners on special effects. In ARRIVAL, the aliens thankfully look truly alien. I just wish they weren’t a long means to a short, uninteresting end. Heck, come to think of it, I recall enjoying Charlie Sheen's 1996 close encounter movie THE ARRIVAL more. The "the-less" ARRIVAL arrives on November 11, 2016. My departure from it was about an hour too late.

2.5 / 5.0