Movie Review – Arrival
Ted Chiang is an acclaimed science-fiction writer whose short piece, “Story of Your Life,” formed the basis of this film. It’s a piece of fiction that is about language, the understanding and application of words. That understanding and application did not translate well to this movie, which is supposed to be an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a concept that comes out of linguistics, the study of how people communicate orally and verbally, as well as cognitive science, or the study of how people think or why they think the way they do.
Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay. Prior to this, Heisserer had mainly written horror movies, yet any potential horror or thrills in this feature are sorely lacking. He gives a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but never truly explains it or never gives any context for it on Earth before putting us in the hands of space aliens. A crucial moment comes in the coming together of different countries after misinterpreting a phrase. Explaining or examining why those countries might misinterpret the phrase is an opportunity missed. The perspective remains American. We never get any other country’s point-of-view, which undermines a goal of this film. It tries to say something about the Chinese but only superficially.
Director Denis Villeneuve has made acclaimed films. The look and feel are similar to his previous picture Prisoners (2013). There is a starkness, an almost overcast. There aren’t bright, sunshine days, unlike his last film Sicario (2015). The lighting isn’t overdone. It’s instead a constant, somber tone, a serious tone. Shadows and darkness are consistent in frame. Even though Heisserer didn’t write a horror script, Villeneuve shoots it like one.
The film is set in Montana, a state nicknamed Big Sky Country, and Villanueve makes good use of the sky. His movie has huge, long and half-oblong space-ships hovering silently in the sky. Shots consistently will feature the space-ships in the background or in wide-angle view. The sky and air engulfing the frame as they do the ships. The sky is very much a character here but not the sun. It’s perpetually cloudy or twilight time. It’s as if Villenueve wants to maintain a sense of gloom by keeping the sun at bay, which is different from Neill Blomkamp in District 9 (2009) where there were also hovering space-ships as a premise.
Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (The Fighter and Man of Steel) stars as Louise Banks, a professor who specializes in linguistics. When the aliens appear, she’s approached to be a translator. She has to interact with them and learn their language. That’s the majority of the second act. Louise sits or stares at alien symbols trying to interpret them, and it’s not terribly exciting.
It’s reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s role in Contact (1997), but the adaptation of that Carl Sagan book, as directed by Robert Zemeckis, had more drama and better characters. Everything here felt so soft-spoken and hushed. The level of excitement seems nominal or the urgency never feels like it rises to a point where I felt like I should care. The supposed chemistry between Adams and Jeremy Renner who plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist who assists Louise, wasn’t all that exciting or detectable either.
There is a point when the conflict over language and translation might get interesting. It almost feels like it will go in the direction of the episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “To Serve Man,” which was a brilliant example of an alien phrase or translation being misinterpreted. When Louise and Ian name the two aliens with whom they interact Abbott and Costello, this invokes the famous comedy routine of “Who’s on First” that itself is about language and misinterpretation.
Yet, Heisserer’s script really only gives it lip service, or not even that. It’s a clever reference that doesn’t need to be hammered, but it reinforces the fact that language really can’t be used the way it should in this movie, as it was perhaps in Chiang’s writing. The one time it echoes effectively is in a scene where Louise talks about the word kangaroo. Yet, that was probably the only effective moment.
Others might cite the brilliant The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Oscar-winner Robert Wise, as one of the best examples in cinema of humanity trying to communicate with visiting aliens from outer space. Other recent examples include David Twohy’s The Arrival (1996) or even the TV miniseries Childhood’s End (2015), which was on SyFy. It was an adaptation of an Arthur C. Clarke novel. It’s not clear, but Chiang was perhaps inspired by this novel, as it features an exact moment of an interpreter or mouth-piece being taken by himself in a small pod up into the alien ship. This is also what happens to Louise. Except, Clarke’s novel isn’t as insulated as this movie. Despite the space aliens, you really feel like the whole thing takes place in a tent in an open field. I didn’t feel the alleged scope that’s supposed to exist.
Yes, there’s an emotional journey that Adams’ character undergoes. It’s almost designed to be a vehicle for this actress to showboat the range of feelings in the awe of an alien invasion and grief of losing a child. She is a great anchor for all that, but, everything around it with the exception of Villanueve’s camerawork can’t compare to the aforementioned, sci-fi films or TV shows. Hell, I’ve seen episodes of The X-Files that were more interesting and better written than this.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.