*This review may spoil the movie for you*
The Heptapods should have known better: we don’t like outsiders. We don't want your time altering, non-linear language here; 'F off back to 3000 years in the future'. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario and Prisoners) approaches the first-contact genre from a new perspective with his latest film "Arrival". That considered, it’s telling that the film ended up feeling overly familiar.
"Arrival" begins with Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) talking about memory and time ‘we are so bound by time; by its order’ she says. Her speech is sincere and the music (The Nature of Daylight, a la Shutter Island) equally atmospheric. She’s addressing her daughter, whose short life fell prematurely to cancer. Cut to present time and Banks is a linguistics professor who lives alone in a secluded Lake house, presumably she's still deeply affected by the passing of her daughter- that serious tone in her voice is also etched on to her face. If only there was something to give her life some meaning again…
Twelve UFO’s (the ‘Heptapods’) land in various spots around the world. What do they want? Why are they here? The US government, in particular Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), calls on Prof. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out. Things start well, everybody is in communication with one another, the nations are united. Banks and Donnelly meet the UFO’s, it’s zero gravity and they take a small bird in a cage. HUMAN, professor Banks writes on a small whiteboard. The Heptapods reply with their own language, a non-linear circle; the first hint that we might need to rethink ‘time and its order’. There’s a lot to like so far, the opening sequence with Banks’ daughter is well pieced together and it’s refreshing to see a first-contact movie that isn’t all shootouts and explosions. They spar with words, not weapons.
And then things start becoming generic.
Russian and China grow increasingly hostile and impatient, they mobilise arms and threaten the cause (classic Russia and China). Banks and Donnelly race to decipher the mechanisms of the Heptapod’s language. As Banks’ understanding of their language progresses, the more persistent her flashbacks become. Time is seemingly up and China are about to blow the Heptapods back to wherever they came from, when Banks makes the final breakthrough. By understanding their language she is gifted with their 'weapon'- the ability to perceive time differently. She can see into the future. Banks recalls/foresees a meeting she has with China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) and a secret he told her, she recites this back to Shang and he withdraws military force.
The visions of the daughter that we presumed were flash backs are actually fact flash forwards. Despite knowing her daughters outcome, Banks still chooses to have the child with Donnelly sometime in the future.
I like Denis Villeneuve, lots of his directorial choices feel unique and exciting. Prisoners was a particularly impressive visual treat. The studios must like him too, he said Paramount gave him complete creative license (and a big cheque) to make "Arrival". This said, Villeneueve’s films feel heavily plot driven with relatively unmemorable characters - think Sicario, which character were we actually meant to care about there? "Arrival" continued this trend. Here's two reasons why:
1/ Amy Adams’ one-dimensional character
2/ The unbelievable romantic subplot
Amy Adams likes crying in films. When she’s not crying she's at least on the brink, that was the case with "Arrival". At the start of the movie Prof. Banks seems empty. We think it's because she lost her daughter but later find out that’s not the case, maybe she was just pretty dull? Regardless, when they arrive she’s given a goal. She needs to workout why they're here, what it is they want. And that’s eventually achieved. Yet there’s no change in her character. That journey happens and she still just looks like she wants to cry.
The romance subplot in the film felt equally one-dimensional. Actually, I'd further that by saying it was barely believable. At no point do we see any spark between Banks and Donnelly, they’re just working in close company. But somehow by its conclusion the two are madly in love. Its ridiculousness is epitomised by Donnelly, a world renowned physicist and self proclaimed 'life-long star-gazer', saying that meeting Banks was more important than meeting them. Big claim: alien life form finally lands on Earth and this particular physicist is lucky enough to be one of the very select few to meet them, yet meeting the dull linguistics professor surprised him the most. His character, and the whole romance element in fact, was there to carry us to the films final twist, the reveal that he is in fact the absent father of the child.
There are lots of questions asked in "Arrival" but the most interesting one comes from Banks towards the end:
‘If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?’
Now that’s a cool thought. And any insight into which would certainly question/challenge/alter one’s personal journey. But "Arrival" doesn't explore that. Instead, Donnelly answers the question for us:
‘I’d say what I feel more often’
Pretty boring. Banks chooses to be with Donnelly and have a chid with him even though she knows the eventual outcome. The decision making process involved in arriving at that conclusion is not explored- it happens at the very end of the film. "Arrival" is more about the potential for global political conflict that first-contact would bring than anything else. It was surprising then to hear Villeneuve say this:
‘the movie was about a woman having a new relationship with death and changing her perspective on her own life, and finding a new humility going through that process. That was the heart of the movie’
Three things were reaffirmed after watching "Arrival": Amy Adams still likes crying, Denis Villeneuve’s movies are heavy on plot and Russia & China are still Hollywood’s favourite antagonist. Is any of that going to change in 2017; Adams is playing a love interest in Justice League and Denis Villeneuve is bringing out a Blade Runner sequel. Maybe Russia will get a better look in, they do have friends in high places now.