Over the years, Hollywood has instilled a pretty concrete expectation for what would presumably happen if aliens ever came to Earth and attempted to make contact. That contact would be violent, it would be swift, and it would take the whole world coming together to defeat it with a computer virus loaded into impossibly advanced machinery via a PowerBook. The only reason aliens would invade, of course, would be to subjugate us. They are The Other, a force entirely unknown, impossible to predict or project, the perfect metaphor for xenophobia (especially trenchant for 50’s ray gun sci-fi movies made during the Red Scare). They will destroy us because they can and we will fight back because we must. It’s do or die.
The newest take on the genre, Arrival from Canadian rising star director of Sicario and Prisoners Denis Villeneuve, takes a different tack in imagining first contact. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival imagines a world where the most important person in the uncertain times after first contact is not a military commander or a President or a Prime Minister, but a Linguistics professor, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The aliens have arrived in twelve identical sleek black UFOs, opening a hatch once a day to allow the humans to communicate, but there’s this one pesky problem that they can’t understand anything the seven-appendaged creatures (thus named heptapods) are saying. Enter the linguist, tasked by a US Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) to join a team alongside Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, to aid in the contact effort and try to bridge their communication gap. Louise and Ian’s work makes progress, but other efforts across the world are far more acrimonious, causing geopolitical tensions to rise. And throughout it all, Louise is plagued by memories of her departed daughter.
Villeneuve’s films have benefited from his keen eye for cinematography and production design, and while he has lost venerated DP Roger Deakins (who shot both Prisoners and Sicario), he’s picked up quite the replacement in Bradford Young, who has stepped up in a big way in the last few years shooting the likes of Selma and A Most Violent Year. He (alongside production designer and Villeneuve stalwart Patrice Vermette) does well in making the world of Arrival feel familiar (it is not some far flung future) but also chilling, injecting that little bit of the otherworldly in the form of these impossibly black obelisks hanging motionless over the countryside. Young shoots the heptapods with a detached reverence, their full forms shrouded by smoky liquid. Arrival is as beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Villeneuve, and he’s proven that his capacity for compelling visuals and music (composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is another chameleonic frequent collaborator) can cross genres with ease.
Arrival does require quite a bit of faith to make its story work, though. The gap of understanding between Adams and the aliens is predominantly bridged by a mix of hand waving and montage, and the third act is especially egregious in the way it accelerates the two species’ ability to communicate in ways that seem almost comically simplified for plot convenience. It collapses with even the smallest bit of scrutiny, but Villeneuve's saving grace is that the mechanics of their communication are simply a means to an end, the foundation needed to support Arrival’s central metaphor. This is a film about communication, after all, and our modern world’s troubling predilection to treat something foreign as something to be feared or attacked, not taking the time to look at other possibilities before pushing the button or pulling the trigger. In a world where fear, skepticism often fueled by hate and cynicism seem depressingly more like the norm, it allows for a film like Arrival to be made, one that argues for measured discourse and time even when the whole world seems like it could be at the brink. Adams proves to be a shrewd choice here, effortlessly moving from a position of wonder and professional curiosity to one of empathy for these mostly unknowable creatures. Renner’s a bit too archetypal at times, but he sells it well, and the romantic chemistry doesn’t feel cheap, which can sometimes be the case with films like this. It’s certainly compelling for much of its first and second acts even with the leaps it makes, taking the time it needs to build the story with care and purpose.
However, Villeneuve tends to have some difficulty with endings (in his English language films, at least), whether it’s Enemy’s gotcha jump scare, Sicario’s somewhat dull finale or Prisoners’ overlong one. Some of that, naturally, needs to be laid at the feet of the screenplay, but it is a troubling trend that isn’t entirely unproven by the ending of Arrival. The aforementioned logical leaps certainly have a lot to do with it, allowing some serious script contrivances to push the plot where it needs to go. There is a twist involved in the wrap-up which is rather ambitious, and is mostly sold successfully by Adams and the film’s structure, but like the central conceit that Adams learns how to decipher a completely alien language, it asks quite a bit from its audience to be on board all the way through. Predisposition has quite a bit to do with it; some audiences won’t have to stretch their credulity as far to accept what Arrival’s third act (and, by extension, the whole film) is peddling than others, and where you fall on that scale will inevitably dictate your final feelings on the quality of the film. I found myself closer to the floor than the ceiling with this one, but the good news is that Arrival’s floor is still pretty high off the ground all things considered, so even if its twist doesn’t land, it also doesn’t invalidate what came before it, an engaging and often engrossing science fiction allegory bolstered by strong performances and Villeneuve’s trademark technical bona fides. It simply feels like it could have been a little more.