At this point Canadian director Denis Villeneuve seems to be just showing off. Nearly every one of his feature films have garnered some level of award season consideration, including three academy award nominations on his last round out with Sicario. Now with his latest film, Arrival, it feels that the bar is already suitably high for expectations. Well, he doesn’t disappoint, and he steps over the bar easily – but then stumbles on the landing.
Arrival, starring Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, has a sudden appearance of twelve large alien craft around Earth. Each is shaped something like a giant black contact lens, standing on edge. Earth loses it’s collective mind as governments, scientists, and militaries try to discern what the visitor’s intent is. The film follows a study into the human psyche on how Earth and it’s inhabitants might react discovering that we’re not alone, and what that simple fact even means.
Overall it’s played out thoughtfully, with Villeneuve and production designer Patrice Vermette going out of their way to think out of the box. Trying to decipher the alien language – how they move and even the nice touch of having the aliens need an entirely different atmosphere than Earth has. Overall it fits neatly into the modern era of realism-based science fiction films along the lines of 2014’s Interstellar.
The characters are fine, however the tendency of Hollywood to still cast actresses that read young. Adams does fine, but as a best in class linguist in America, it would have read more natural for someone like Louise Fletcher’s amazing Dr. Lillian Reynolds in Brainstorm (Casting too young is hardly unique here, there hasn’t been a good Lois Lane casting since Margot Kidder).
The stumble comes, as it did in Interstellar, when the script has to make a leap of faith away from the hard science that the film serves up over it’s first two acts to more of a wish-fulfillment magical tech that winds up causing what would have been a truly great science fiction film to only being good. As with Interstellar winds up playing liberally with non-linear storytelling to tie things up. Unfortunately this time once again, while it fulfills the needs of the story, it simply winds up leaving more unanswered questions – and not in the best of ways.
Arrival also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nathaly Thibault, and Mark O’Brien. It’s based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang with the screenplay by Eric Heisserer.
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