The Case for and Against 'Arrival'
Is Denis Villeneuve's 'Arrival' poindextery jibber-jabber, or a commanding, optimistic example of cinema at its finest? Our critics debate.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Point: 'Arrival' Is Poindextery Jibber-Jabber
The new science-fiction movie Arrival is about a linguist played by Amy Adams, learning to communicate with the UFO people who have just shown up on Earth without explanation. How much you'll enjoy it depends entirely on how much patience you have for movies that act like they're going to be about Serious Adult Stuff at the start, but in the end, deliver a half-baked Reddit post.
Arrival announces itself as a procedural, at least somewhat rooted in the real world, and it even walks you through its specific trade tools in a somewhat hokey but basically plausible way—by which I mean, Amy Adams literally gives a speech about pronouns. Then it tosses all that in the garbage, and takes a sharp left into pure mumbo-jumbo.
In short: The movie starts off as a particularly poindextery episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and then, with the Enterprise crew still not saved, it flips the channel to Qui-Gon Jinn jabbering about midichlorians in Star Wars: Episode I.
It's a shame Arrival is too cynical about the audience's intellect to ask us to really grapple with the movie's alien language. It's just a little bit of sci-fi 101 stuff about four-dimensional beings—the kind of thing Rick and Morty viewers can digest in 22 minutes, while also laughing.
Counterpoint: 'Arrival' Is Optimistic Cinema in a Dark Time
Denis Villeneuve has often thrived on brutal discomfort, using his lens to show the audience unflinching and grotesque imagery that's hard to look away from and harder to forget. In 2009's Polytechnique, which vividly recounted the events of the 1989 mass shooting at Montreal's École Polytechnique, it was a pile of dead female bodies in the corner of a classroom. Prisoners gave us, in 2013, a lingering and utterly horrifying shot of Paul Dano's swollen, severely disfigured face. More recently, there was the grisly sight of decapitated corpses hung from an overpass in last year's Sicario, and the hissing tarantulas and disturbing doppelgänger mayhem of 2014's absolute mindfuck Enemy.
Arrival, the 49-year-old French Canadian filmmaker's latest, possesses an element of shock in its own right: optimism. The Amy Adams–starring alien-invasion drama is, unquestionably, the type of utopian sci-fi that represents a hard left turn, tonally, since Villeneuve broke big into larger North American markets with the effective, utterly adult sturm und drang of Prisoners. That Arrival successfully explores lofty themes—the immutability of grief, the glorious struggles of communication, and the culture of fear triggered by interacting with the "other"—in what could conceivably be called a genre film is only the latest indicator of Villeneuve's versatility as a filmmaker able to capably walk the line between mass-market Hollywood fare and serious artifice. (It also bodes well for his next project: Blade Runner 2047, a sequel to Ridley Scott's visionary cult classic set for release next year.)
Beyond the stunning photography and ability to draw commanding performances from today's top actors (as linguistics professor Louise Banks, Adams's turn is one of the year's most impressive by far), Arrival finds Villeneuve following a thematic thread that's run through his previous work even as he breaks from his usual approach: the struggles that women face when it comes to being heard—and, in the case of Polytechnique, achieving basic survival—when surrounded by men. Adams's character bears conceivable spiritual relation to Emily Blunt's steely FBI agent Kate Macer in Sicario: Both are valued for their raw talent and thrust into an unfamiliar and masculine work environment, where the fight for basic respect from their colleagues is nearly as tough as solving the problems they were enlisted to resolve.
Where Banks lands in her quests—both personal and gravely cosmic—is better left for viewers to see for themselves. (Arrival paints in broad emotional strokes, but its third act features the type of curveball that demands repeated viewings along with serious contemplation.) As trite as it feels to even type, though, it's also necessary to note that Arrival could prove a temporary salve for the pain, anxiety, and paranoia currently washing over vast swathes of the United States. Far from devolving into the type of loud, violent clash plaguing so many other alien-invasion films, Arrival instead uses its own visitors from outer space to train a mirror on the world at-large—exposing not only its irreconcilable differences within the myriad nations that comprise it, but daring to suggest that achieving a sort of global unity isn't wholly impossible. Sure, these days such utopian notions toward humanity immediately register as escapism in its purest, most naïve form—but isn't that why we go to the movies to begin with?