Arrival takes and old idea and attempts to make it new again in Dennis Villeneuve’s latest thinking man’s blockbuster. The landing of 12 space crafts, looking rather like London’s gherkin skyscraper, at various locations around the world incites widespread panic and fear. Amid the chaos, a linguistics professor is recruited by the American military to forge a path towards coherent communication with the intelligent life forms. Sharing cinematic DNA with the likes of Interstellar and The Martian, Arrival continues the recent trend of smarter than your usual big budget Sci-Fi’s. The film certainly aims high, attempting to juggle weighty themes with a suspenseful, slow-burn plot. However, despite its best intentions, it ultimately struggles to break the shackles of mediocrity.
Amy Adams takes the reigns as Louise Banks, plucked from the mundane routine of her life as a regular civilian by mysterious government men, and fast tracked for a meet and greet with the intergalactic visitors. It is a highly formulaic plot set up that is rather surprising coming from a director of Villeneuve’s proven creativity in such recent past works as Scicario, Prisoners, and Enemy. The only consolation of the opening sequence is that within the space of a quarter of an hour we are out of the films first act and into the heart of the story. From here, the film picks up.
With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Banks is tasked with making quick progress in establishing communication links with the alien species. With several nations on the verge of declaring war on the Martians, time is not a luxury at hand. While obvious parallels can be drawn to the global refugee crisis, the film does well to refrain from beating the audience over the head with any blunt metaphors. Villeneuve is consistent throughout in his respect for the intelligence of the audience, letting them draw their own conclusions.
Through a series of flashbacks we discover Louise is burdened by the immense grief of the untimely death of her young daughter. These glimpses into an earlier, happier time in her life have a dreamy, ethereal Terrence Malick quality to them. They are imbued with a real sense of longing and pain that elevates Arrival from blockbuster territory into something more thoughtful and adult. The always great Johann Johannsson provides a backing score that underlines the sentiments without ever melting into Hollywood goo. However, the toing and froing between the Louise’s past and present sometimes feels a little clunky. The relevance of these memories of loss on her current predicament is not always entirely apparent. At times, Villeneuve feels like he is trying to do too much, all at the same time.
Taking it’s time, the film boils to a satisfying crescendo but undoes so much of its good work with a lazy ending. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, a game changing ex machina appears out of left field to conveniently tie up all the loose ends in abrupt fashion. It all feels rather contrived and crowd appeasing and is typical of the sort of flaws which leave Arrival just short of being something a lot better.
Like an intelligent but lazy uni student, Arrival has so much potential but is too easily satisfied with passable but middling grades. Serving as a pleasant slice of escapism on a rainy day, it is worth the time it takes to watch, but leaves you with the feeling that it won’t live too long in the memory.