Well here it is, our prestige “space” movie for the year. Although instead of a story about a harrowing adventure through space, this time the plot roulette wheel landed on communicate with aliens.
Arrival takes ideas and images that are very familiar and uses them to tell a story I’ve seen before in a way that’s not particularly compelling and is also pretty stupid. I did not have a great time.
This story begins with strange all black ships appearing across the world. These ships are deeply derivative of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also never as strange or unpleasant because this movie isn’t that effective at creating mood, and because this is such a culturally familiar idea at this point. 2001 works because what it shows us feels alien and unknown; it’s strange and confusing and never explained. Arrival‘s material is familiar but it still feels the need to explain everything to us (eventually with straight forward documentary style narration) and loses the power of the material it’s copying.
The same holds true for the design on its aliens. Sure they’re not just grey dude with big eyes, that’s passé now, but making them giant squid isn’t less overdone for a strange unknown creature. It’s all too safe, so there’s no weight to the uneasiness of the characters initially, and the transition to normalization (which does happen pretty abruptly) doesn’t have the impact it could have if things had been more inherently strange.
The movie is very intent on getting you to feel the import of what’s happening here and that fell flat for me. It’s all very pretentious, and doesn’t do itself any favors when it has its characters, who are supposed to be very smart, say very stupid things. Like when the movie positions the linguist (Amy Adams) as opposed the scientist (Jeremy Renner); because language is cool and science is dumb I guess, except linguistics is a science. What the hell movie?!
There’s a section in the middle of the movie that I actually think is fine, where it’s just about doing the work of translating the alien language. I like it when a movie is just about characters working through a problem, that was what made The Martian so effective. But this movie isn’t content with that, this movie has something to say!
This movie comes from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisonsers, Sicario) and writer Eric Heisserer (The Thing (2011),Final Destination 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)). Villeneuve is talented but I don’t feel like he ever comes up with a coherent vision here; and I just think Heisserer is out of his depth.
This movie has a trick to pull, but it’s not content to execute on it naturally, instead it does so in a gimmicky way that’s meant to draw attention to the director so the audience recognizes how clever he is. I think it’s super cheap, gives away the game on what the movie’s going to do, and makes this a weaker film. It’s also probably a big part of why the movie’s getting rave reviews, so fuck me I guess.
Also, because this movie is about a woman it can’t allow this movie to just be about it’s own story but also has to be about the death of her kid, just like Gravity. This is both central to the movie and has nothing to do with the story. It’s just there to accentuate the gimmick, which again, I think it does poorly. But it’s at least a step up from Sicario where the female main character literally had no purpose to the story except to get shit on. At least this movie is about Amy Adams’s character.
This director is talented (I still love Prisoners) I just think his head is lodged too far up his own anus for him to make good movies at the moment. Ego and ambition have ruled the day for his last two movies at the expense of tight storytelling that comes together in a satisfying way.
This is a bad dumb movie that’s incredibly full of itself. It’s got that perfect combo of stupid pretentiousness and facile sentimentality that’s basically cinema poison to me.
Not a fan.