Wednesday, March 1, 2017
For the past several fall seasons filmgoers have been offered the annual Overrated Science Fiction Drama, films with big stars like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, and Matt Damon. Films that embrace huge emotional sentiments wrapped in a sci-fi scenario you've seen (in one form or another) many times before. The critics and general public tend to agree on the films' brilliance. The Academy takes notice. Everyone seems to bring each other to orgasm over them.
Last year ARRIVAL joined this dubious group. It featured Big Star Amy Adams as a university linguist, haunted by the death of her daughter, who is once again recruited by the military for her translation and interpreting skills, though the stakes are far higher this go round: extraterrestrials have parked their disc shaped vehicles vertically in twelve spots around the globe. An Army colonel (Forrest Whittaker, in a role he could've played in his sleep) puts together a team to discover why the aliens have come. Jeremy Renner, a pretty big star in his own right, is aboard as Ian Donnelly, there to offer his skills as a theoretical physicist, though other than one breakthrough moment, mostly he just stands around. Louise Banks (Adams) uses her considerable knowledge of languages to try to decode the aliens' ("heptapods") symbols, which are sprayed onto a glass wall (between them and the humans) via their tentacle like appendages.
Meanwhile, the soldiers get restless. They do incredibly questionable things like rigging the aliens' spaceraft with explosives. Everyone is spooked by China's itchy trigger finger. Time is tight. Banks will be given a revelation by one of the aliens mid-way though the movie. What viewers thought were flashbacks are something else entirely. The ending will be hailed by some as transcendent and hopeful, others as head scratching nonsense. For me, I was unfavorably reminded of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.
I realize that my review of ARRIVAL thus far sounds like a total slam. Thing is, the film is actually very well produced. Eric Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chaing's "Story of Your Life" is often intelligent and appealingly humanistic. Bradford Young's cinematography is wondrous. The score by Johann Johannson and Max Richter is by turns unsettling and sweeping. The actors are very good. Director Denis Villeneuve, currently in post production on BLADE RUNNER 2049 and set to take on a new adaptation of Dune, mounts the scenario well, weaving elements of thriller, end-of-world spectacular, and quiet exposition with equal skill.
The ending seemed to work for me as it was happening, but later, when I pondered it, I wondered if Louise would really "do it all again", despite the horrible emotional crush it would entail. I also wondered what else she would do with this "tool", how she would help humanity. One person's story here is meant to be representative of mankind, perhaps a way to bring us all together. Your average Trump nationalist of today will balk, calling out the "libtards" who would embrace this global message. I wondered if Neill Blomkamp had contributed to this movie in some uncredited way.
ARRIVAL's aspirations to be a latter day 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are far grander than the execution. There are too many holes in the plot, too many scientific nitpicks. Heavy drama that isn't as effective as intended. Similar problems occurred with GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, and THE MARTIAN. I liked those films (to varying degrees) too, but the amount of praise they received seemed unwarranted. Where are the Isaac Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes these days? ARRIVAL, as good as it is, even falls short of CONTACT. Will it fall to Neil deGrasse Tyson to pen the next Truly Great Science Fiction Drama? Not sure how he is with character arcs, though.