Another year, another fall on the movie calendar highlighted by a star-studded sci-fi/space movie geared toward grown-ups and unencumbered by ties to a franchise or cinematic universe. It seems us adults are allowed one of these a year, as Mark Harris pointed out recently. We’ll actually get two in 2016 with Passengers due out in a few weeks, but that shouldn’t obscure the overall point. After slogging through months of two-hour merchandising infomercials, known by the shorthand “tentpoles,” or simply holing up in an arthouse until it’s safe to come up for air, we’re thrown a bone around the time the leaves start to change. It appears to have some real meat on it. Enjoy your meal, folks. It’s going to have to nourish you for awhile.
Following in the footsteps of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, here is flick that gives the gifted Amy Adams a true starring role in a would-be blockbuster. Here, too, is a platform for an up-and-coming director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), to make himself a household name. This is the context in which Arrival, ahem, arrives. And this is the context in which I am going to lodge a series of complaints, instead of merely swallowing something that seems (and, actually, is) appetizing enough.
Adams plays a linguist named Dr. Louise Banks who is drafted in to duty by the military when an alien craft loosely resembling a giant shell shows up in Montana and, well, just kind of hangs out there, floating just above the surface of the Earth. The shell in Montana isn’t the only one. There are 12 across the planet -- Sudan, China and Russia among the other locales -- and their sudden, simultaneous appearance is both a great mystery and an international crisis in the making.
Banks is there to try and figure out how to communicate with the aliens -- two seven-legged creatures termed “heptapods” that are obscured by an opaque barrier through which only their silhouettes and their ink-blot-style writing can be clearly discerned.
Given that these are non-human lifeforms, simply learning their “language” (if it can even be called that) is an enormous challenge, to say nothing of trying to figure out why they showed up. The difficulties are magnified by anxious and impatient military and intelligence leadership, represented, respectively, by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, and by the panic-induced unwillingness of people around the world to work together to understand these new arrivals instead of flailing about.
This is all interesting enough. Adams’ character is sober about her work, and that devotion, even as we learn that she has faced immense personal tragedy, is kind of infectious. There’s this detective-like rhythm to her work. She enters the “shell,” with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) at her side. She “converses” with the heptapods. She leaves the shell. She pores over documents -- renderings of those alien ink blots -- and little by little she seems to be solving the mystery. At the same time, we're solving a bit of mystery about that personal tragedy of hers -- one that amounts to a fairly sizable twist.
What this is not is particularly moving or ambitious. The personal tragedy that is interspersed with her alien sleuthing turns out to be integral to the plot of the film, but until the very end it feels tacked on, as if it’s a blatant (and flawed) attempt to warm up this cool, cerebral character. Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that the tragedy bit ought to have turned me in to an emotional puddle given the particulars. That it didn’t is fairly damning in retrospect.
The rest of the story, while engaging, isn’t exactly thrilling, especially when you consider the recent competition in this space (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian). All three movies did it better than Arrival. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, with its focus on family and on mind-bending/bewildering time travel is the closest touchpoint of that trio, and while I didn’t love it, it runs circles around Arrival.
I’m supposed to appreciate this film more, I know. We only get this kind of bone thrown our collective way a few times a year. I should be grateful I'm not writing about another comic book movie, I suppose. The thing is, usually the bone comes with a bit more meat on it. Even with the relative paucity of adult-oriented sci-fi, the last few years have spoiled us.