Image Credit to Ars Technica
I probably appreciate Arrival more than I’m willing to admit. Dennis Villeneuve’s new film is thoughtfully directed, cleverly constructed, well-acted, and extremely moving at its best. Yet, I can’t erase the cloying feeling that, for all its delights, the film only reaches half its potential and instead settles for a safer take on its subject matter’s profound mysteries and ambiguities.
Arrival follows a linguistic professor, Louise (Amy Adams), during a period in which Earth faces a crisis as spaceships carrying extraterrestrial beings with unknown objectives reach the planet. In the opening sequence, Villeneuve establishes her alienation and disconnect. He dresses her in dark blue shirts that contrast with her world’s brighter reds and provides a string of shots in which she sits on her couch watching the news, never calling anyone or receiving a call from anyone other than her mother.
Due to her professional background, Louise is called in by the US military to converse with the aliens and figure out their motives. Working with Jeremy Renner’s scientist Ian Donnelly, she enters a chaotic situation where if she fails, the US and its allies, spooked by the aliens already and led by aggressive leaders, could enter into war with them. Louise attempts to prevent this by teaching the aliens English, and then learning their language to decode their responses. Adams makes this portion of the film the liveliest. She does such an excellent job conveying Louise’s intelligence and professionalism that I found myself inspired, and despite how smooth she seems, she still garners sympathy and hopefulness by communicating her feelings of loneliness and how they’re thawing due to her interactions with the aliens.
Frustratingly, Adams’ work is undercut by Villeneuve’s direction. He has obviously thought about his work’s form, borrowing techniques-including a thudding score and camera placements-from directors, such as Stanley Kubrick, who wished to communicate the simultaneous fear and wonder of contact with life more powerful than humanity. But, Villeneuve’s knowledge of film history becomes a liability instead of a hidden joy. By using such recognizable choices in such recognizable ways, he fails to provide his aliens with the awe and weirdness that he yearns for audiences to find in them. Rather, due to its familiarity, his depiction feels bland and increasingly grating the more he commits to it. Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s lack of originality here comes back to haunt the film later when it reveals a shocking twist, a moment that helps Villeneuve solidify his allegiance to playing it safe over taking risks.
Initially, however, the narrative shift injects some pleasure into the film. Those who share my admiration of puzzles and magic tricks will smile as Arrival unravels its twist. Without spoiling anything, I can say that it elegantly upends what came before without making you feel like Villeneuve cheated. Sadly, it does spoil what comes after.
Villeneuve structures his narrative so that the twist aids in resolving the tense conflicts at the film’s center. But while the cause-effect pattern of this narrative resolution is soundly worked out, it works to undermine any underlying suspense. Any doubt about Louise’s eventual triumph is not only erased by the logic of our past filmic experiences, but by the logic of the film itself.
Far more dispiriting, however, is Villeneuve’s evasion of the rich and deep questions that the film raises for and about Louise. He has stumbled upon some profound ambiguities about the obligations, ethical and otherwise, that come with knowing secret information and deciding who to disclose it to, ambiguities that would continually challenge someone’s outlook on herself, morality, and the world.
For the most part, though, Villeneuve ignores exploring how Louise deals with such challenges. Interweaving flash-forwards with the narrative’s climax, he uses his twist to have Louise decide that she no longer wishes to be a loner, but is instead willing to embrace the messiness and pain that comes with forging joyous relationships. From this decision, then, she figures out how to approach guarding what she has learned. I must confess that Louise’s pivotal choice, here, so neatly resolves her character’s internal conflict, so deftly articulates the emotional complexity of choosing to no longer remain closed-off from the world, and is so brilliantly acted by Adams, that it moved me to tears.
And yet, I also felt hollow while watching it. As Louise moved away from her alienation, it became clearer that Villeneuve was moving away from his film’s promising messiness. Instead of challenging himself to deal with the emotional turmoil and haunting doubt that would come out of her approach to disclosing knowledge, Villeneuve eradicates any questioning of Louise in the film. His flash-forwards, which despite showing some pain in Louise’s future, mostly focused on how content she felt, merely serve as reinforcements of how good her decision to no longer be alone is. In other words, Villeneuve uses his clever, weird, and deep sci-fi concept to further a standard Hollywood narrative dealing with the relatable problem of loneliness instead of going someplace fresher and rarer. In doing so, he aligns his narrative with how his filmmaking approached depicting the aliens: both suggest something odder and more mysterious than what they deliver.
Despite its ultimately deflating quality, Arrival should still be viewed as something of an accomplishment for Villeneuve. In its ability to serve as a perfect vehicle for great performances, construct a sophisticated narrative, and work through a powerful internal conflict, the movie provides great evidence of his talent. What Arrival (and really, its filmmaking) fail to show is if there’s any magic behind that talent.