As a genre, sci-fi comes with a burden. Like its horror kin, it tends to be taken less seriously if it isn’t saying something. Ever since Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World pitched the Red Menace as an extra-terrestrial boogeyman, science fiction has felt the need to attach itself not just to fact, but to morals, however broad. In Arrival, the big message is: grief is a bit of a slog. Earth-shattering stuff (!)
The films of Denis Villeneuve, particularly the ones he’s made in the U.S., offer thrills wrapped around a rather blunt point. Prisoners reminded us that torture is not a bed of rose petals, while Sicario posited much the same thing about the world of drug trafficking. (His return to Canada with Enemy felt refreshingly unburdened, giving precedence to texture and atmosphere over concrete morals). Like that film, Arrival starts out far removed from sci-fi, swapping Toronto and mustard yellows for a lakeshore house in cool dark blues. This is the home of Dr, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), world-renowned linguist and mother to a little girl, Hannah. The prologue sees Hannah grow, become a teenager and succumb to cancer long before her time. In case we weren’t sure how to feel about this (and given how quickly this all happens, Villeneuve clearly feels that’s a risk), the scene is accompanied by the violin strains of Max Richter’s ‘On The Nature of Daylight’. It’s a beautiful piece on its own, but it signals Villeneuve’s intent: you are going to cry, either through convincing character development or by an easy soundtrack choice. This event, the death of her daughter, becomes a driving force for Banks and the film, even when we’re attempting to communicate with 20-foot multi-legged aliens. Such a pity, then, to undermine it from the start with a sob score and sun-dappled flashbacks. The problem isn’t that the events that follow are secondary to this grief narrative; it’s that Villeneuve’s penchant for unsubtle messages make them seem secondary. Arrival is all metaphor, but with little to anchor it.
Dr. Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) in an effort to communicate with the aliens that have positioned twelve of their 200-foot spaceships at various locations across the globe. Her expertise (plus her bereaved status, because you can’t be a world saviour without a emotionally-crippling backstory and/or addiction) ensures Banks is brought to the front line, where she’s to work alongside Jeremy Renner’s physicist Dr. Donnelly. The supporting cast do fine with what they’re given (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a vaguely slimy authority figure, as he is wont to do) but, like the film or not, Adams is the key here. She sells Banks’ turmoil whilst also introducing moments of steely purpose throughout. She brings grit in plentiful supply, but the rest of the film is too determined to do the same.
Arrival is a ultimately a film about mourning, but it’s so predisposed to that aspect that it never allows itself any levity or major shifts in tone. There’s no humour or energy to alleviate the self-seriousness that pervades the film. The early sense of foreboding is a credit to the production design and effects; the oblong ships loom large, offering no clues to their mission. The early occasions of the crew entering the ships have an undeniable tension. When we do meet the aliens, resembling the towering offspring of Cthulu and a human hand, it’s an ever-accelerating rush from meeting to communication to ultimate dissemination of their purpose. The fact that the aliens appear behind a screen and communicate via inky writings on said screen is an interesting idea, but Eric Heisserer’s script moves too quickly to allow its more philosophical and emotional ideas to breathe. The film constantly returns to the tragedy at the start, unnecessarily reducing its sci-fi aspects to a sideshow as time goes on. A raft of linguistic ideas and theories are mingled with occasional military chat, as various governments take differing approaches to the intergalactic visitors. These two aspects of the film compete, but with no clear victor by the end. There’s nothing wrong with using a science fiction template as a conduit to a more grounded moral, but it’s no excuse for appearing to give up on that aspect entirely.
There’s a fascinating film hidden inside of Arrival. To see a large-scale mainstream film grapple with the limitations of language and the weight of grief is a welcome development. However, despite Adams’ potent investment, it’s just not sharp enough to maintain its good intentions, sacrificing its ideas in favour of easy emotions and spectacle, and a few lapses in logic along the way. Arrival talks the talk, and that’s about it.