ARRIVAL (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
This review will heavily spoil the plot. Hopefully most of you read reviews after seeing the film (they’re not called “previews”), but in case you don’t, I’d suggest skipping this until you’ve seen it, don’t plan to see it at all, or don’t think plot spoilers are movie spoilers.
ARRIVAL does one thing really cleverly — it uses fractured chronology to tell a story about a language and mindset that also involves fractured chronology. If it wants to get you to think about events not happening linearly, then why not show the events in a non-linear fashion? Normally this melding of form and content would be enough to really get me on board with a film, but unfortunately Villeneuve lets his worst instincts (the ones that hampered the dour PRISONERS and crippled the more-interesting ENEMY) take over.
For a tale about an advanced alien species coming to Earth, opening up the capacity for human cooperation and future-reading, and wanting humanity to return the favor, this settles on a really reductive character study — apparently aliens are really landing here to help Amy Adams’s Dr. Banks get over the death of a daughter she hasn’t had yet. “I know, we’re blowing your mind, but the most important thing is you remember to have a kid who’s going to die as a teenager. Cool? Cool.” But if that wasn’t enough, when Banks realizes that her new colleague Ian will be the father, she says “I forgot how nice it felt to be held by you” and he doesn’t react like “Um, what? We just met.” Or was his mind opened to the new language of non-linear events too? And worse than that, Jeremy Renner is way too weak an actor to be able to pull off the devastatingly lame line “You know what surprised me most? It wasn’t meeting them; it was meeting you.” Are you fucking serious, Denis?
The production design is simple but effective, HER’s Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is muted but nice, and SELMA DP Bradford Young’s camerawork delivers a cool color palate dedicated to communication (of mood, tone, and clarity), which is just what the story requires. Adams does good work too. But along with the aforementioned Renner (it isn’t all his fault; that dialogue is murder), the other supporting players fall flat too. What accent is Forest Whitaker doing? And why is he there? His character gets no arc and basically exists as Colonel Exposition. I like that the tense action climax is about making a phone call, not a big chase sequence or a shootout (though we know from SICARIO that Villeneuve can do that too), but the fact that this dorm room stoner plot from Philosophy 101 is in service of this grieving mother storyline just sinks the entire thing once you reflect on it. Screenwriting is in death process.