*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
A little more than a year ago, the film Crimson Peak (2015) surprised and almost infuriated audiences because, as they pointed out in the dialogue, it was not a “ghost story”, but rather “a story with ghosts in it.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but audiences need to consider that before deciding to view, because they may have wanted the ghost story. Arrival seems to be Crimson Peak‘s sci-fi cousin – it is not a story about aliens and invasions, as you may have thought. It is actually just a story that happens to have aliens in it. In fact, it could almost be argued that Arrival takes a concept that other films (Interstellar is the first to come to mind) have struggled with, reeled the audience in slowly with the presence of the aliens, and then gone on to tell them not a story of invasion or alien destruction, but of science and language and how we as humans view the world around us. So nothing too heavy, right?
In twelve locations around the world, mysterious alien spaceships begin to touch down, but none make any sign of aggression towards the humans in the area. The army asks linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and others to come to the touchdown sight in Montana to attempt to contact the aliens and learn what they want. As nations across the country teeter on the brink of war with these beings (cutely named heptapods), Louise must make decisions that could threaten the fate of mankind. All this is told as a story from Louise to her daughter, explaining the story of her life (and not a spoiler, the movie literally starts out with this montage).
I am willing to say that any misconceptions people walk into the theater with about Arrival is due to marketing issues. Like most other people, I walked into the movie expecting a lot more alien and, frankly, a lot more action. But what we ended up watching, a story about time and someone’s place within it, it was still a great story – it’s just not the one that we expected to see walking in. And as I said before, this isn’t a story that is entirely new to us. If you watched Interstellar (2014), you are familiar with many of the concepts that Arrival is going to present to you. In this case, however, you should be able to sit through the movie and understand it on your own much better than you did with Interstellar – that is to say that you shouldn’t feel the need to have a physicist with you every time you watch the movie just to explain all the science that you’re pretty sure is going over your head. In terms of explaining all the large concepts this movie presents you with, I’d rank it somewhere between The Martian (2015) and Interstellar – this movie won’t dumb it down for you so much that you feel that you’re being pandered to (even if you’re enjoying it), but they are not going to stop themselves telling you the big picture story either. They really want you to understand the grand nature of what they’re saying, not to just be dazzled by stunning visuals.
But oh boy are those visuals stunning. There are only so many character actors in this film, so you can imagine that left the crew most of the budget to develop the extravagantly beautiful visuals that you are plenty willing to stare at, perhaps sometimes even missing the science of it all just because you’re in awe of the spaceships hovering just over the ground, or the strangely fascinating heptapods that tower over the humans in a very elephant-like way, but still look like an octopus at the same time. Between the beautiful shots of spaceships, the visual alien language, and just the background of where all the ships have appeared, there is no end to what is available for viewers to look at in this film.
Sometimes that is a very helpful quality, because Arrival gets off to a bit of a crawling start for a little while. Again, this may be because we came into the film expecting more alien invasions, but between the moment when Louise is first taken to the Montana site and when her team gets into the ship to actually interact with the aliens, things go very slowly. This is partially because the characters have to explore the environment of the ship, of course, but they spend an agonizingly long time on it, and while the first encounters with the aliens are definitely stunning, they tend to drag on before getting to the crux of the problems that the scientists must face in communicating. Once the group actually begins to work on deciphering the language of the aliens, the film time starts moving with a little more purpose, but before that the audience does get a little antsy waiting for, well, anything to bring an end to the ever-building tension.
As far as the acting goes for this film, you are going to know four characters – Louise, Ian, the leader of the site Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Louise’s daughter Hannah. And this movie is very heavily focused on Louise, so Adams gets the majority of screen time and explanation for basically everything. There’s nothing wrong with this, Adams does her job well, after all, but sometimes you do wish that you’d get to see more of what the other characters are going to do. Ian Donnelly, for example, was brought to the site because they thought he would be just as useful as Louise, but Renner’s character isn’t really used all that much and it doesn’t seem like he does much work (at least not as much as Louise does). But that can’t be true, can it? I’m sure Donnelly and his team was doing important things, we just never got to see them, and maybe it would have been more balanced if we had. Most other characters aren’t needed for an extended period of time, so you don’t need to get used to them, but everyone is placed to showcase Adams, so it’s worth it to note that her part is the most important – everyone else is basically her prop.
If you could see your life laid out start to finish, would you change your mind about seeing this movie?