I watched the Arrival last night and I’m conflicted. It was either the best pure science fiction movie I’ve seen in a while or it was one the most boring.
The Arrival is a film about first contact with an alien race but instead of a crowd pleasing special effects spectacle like Independence Day, it tries to take the subject matter seriously and deal with one of the most vexing questions which would arise in such a scenario: How do you talk to these beings who don’t share a single physical, mental, cultural, or social similarity to us? How would you communicate if their concept of language is radically different?
To its credit, the Arrival is visually striking. One of the opening scenes of the helicopter flying over the Montana landscape approaching the Alien ship is one of the best single science fiction shots I have ever seen. The choice of the Montana landscape was beautiful, but cold and foreboding. I couldn’t imagine humanity living there – and then you add the dark and unresponsive alien ship and suddenly, my own planet – hell, part of a state of my own country felt alienating. The movie is full of shots like this both outside and inside the alien ship.
The actual process of how they go about communicating with the aliens is fascinating. It is difficult, full of fits and starts and roadblocks. Some of their successes are accidental, some of them brilliant. The process is made more fascinating by good character performances. Forest Whitaker as a patient but stressed military officer and Jeremy Renner as a physicist are both good but this is Amy Adams movie from start to finish. Her performance is pun intended, stellar as she deals with a hidden melancholy which later makes more sense as well as the fatigue of linguist for whom working her ass off because everything is riding on her.
It is unfortunate though that so much of the movie is boring to watch. I knew I wasn’t there for dogfights and laser beams – I was there to think and ponder but damn, this was one weirdly paced movie. One moment you have this truly brilliant set shot, and then you get a bunch of dialogue which is barely interesting filler. You then get these riveting scenes of alien-human interaction, then you get some flash forward shots with narration explain things – not a good choice. Even the central conflict which dominates the late third of the movie seems like a half-hearted afterthought meant to add dramatic tension – as if the language scenes which were the strength of the movie weren’t enough. I felt it interesting that in the middle of the movie, I saw a few people get up and leave the theater which was otherwise packed.
Ultimately, I feel this movie ranks up there with Close Encounters and Contact as the best realistic first contact stories out there – I would probably rank it third behind the two above and thus in good company. Do I recommend it? Yes – but I think you’re going to have to understand what you’re getting. You are going to get a slow paced, beautifully shot, cerebral movie which leaves you thinking about big things – you’re just not going to get a very exciting one.