Arrival

When I experienced Arrival, I couldn’t help but think of the last line of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” While the plot—worldwide alien visitation and the struggle to communicate—sounds like many another action film or thriller, Arrival is muted, almost always pulling back and only allowing its punchy twist to emerge softly and almost delicately.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (probably best known for Sicario and Incendies), the film recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sixth Sense, Close Encounters of the Third KindInterstellar and Inception, but has little of the energy of those films. That’s not a criticism, just a description. Arrival is slow, beautiful, and conceptual. The photography is cool and elegant in a sci-fi Nancy Meyers way. Probably the strongest film element is the editing, which is deft and quietly whip-smart.

What the film does well is to integrate the personal story with the alien experience. The two elements aren’t balanced as much as they are each allowed to come to the fore when necessary, and the film ends up with a surprising focus on the human element. To say too much more in that regard would be to rob the viewer of the experience.

There are (spoilers ahead) a couple of glaring weaknesses, especially in a film reaching for originality and going full bore into the end-of-the-world questions that arise with most films dealing with the “Why are they here?” questions. One is the difficulty of trying to communicate with them, which is the entire reason for our lead character’s involvement. If spaceships can manage a dozen arrivals around the earth, why haven’t they figured out how to communicate with us?

Secondly, there is a rather tiresome display of machismo on the part of world leaders that seems to yank the viewer back to the 1950s in similar alien invasion films. I just didn’t buy the idea of countries wanting to attack the aliens when they so clearly had the upper hand technologically, and common sense dictated a different course.

The casting is key to the experience of the film as a whole, as this is essentially a two-person film. The main character is played by Amy Adams, a lovely presence and talented actress. Jeremy Renner, another talented actor, plays the other lead. As in a Hitchcock film, though, the main characters are simply part of the cool, recessive palette of the film. Neither Adams nor Renner is a strong lead in terms of a visceral film experience, and it can be argued that neither of them has demonstrated an ability to carry a film. I kept thinking of what a different and perhaps more relatable film it might have been with someone like Jessica Chastain in the lead. Chastain punches through the screen in all her roles, and would have owned the film in a way that the filmmakers may well not have wanted. The leads’ performances are solid, even touching at times, but they fade into the film as a whole, perhaps so as not to touch the heart or the nerves in the film’s quest to touch your mind.

Finally, the film seems like one that could have/should have been a short feature in the La Jetée category, as shorter films sometimes raise simple questions or make a simple statement that is meant to reside in the gut or the brain. Arrival raises legitimate questions about the human experience and relationships in a way that has nothing to do with aliens. But those questions come with the climax of the film, and in the context of a “save the earth” plotline that, after nearly two hours, tends to overshadow the power of its existential concerns.

Too, the film’s “exploration” of those concerns is a journey the viewer can only take in memory, once having seen the film. The Sixth Sense was similar in that regard, but was so emotionally engaging that it fairly demanded a quick re-viewing of the film. Arrival’s very coolness and muted pace, coloring and performances make the film’s climax—and its attendant discussable issues—soft, conceptual, and ephemeral. The twist is earned and the issues are well worth exploring. Ultimately, the film ends not with a bang, but a soft, sweet , but still enjoyable, whimper.

Arrival

 

When I experienced “Arrival,” I couldn’t help but think of the last line of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” While the plot—worldwide alien visitation and the struggle to communicate—sounds like many another action film or thriller, Arrival is muted, almost always pulling back and only allowing its punchy twist to emerge softly and almost delicately.

 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (probably best known for Sicario and Incendies), the film recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sixth Sense, Interstellar and Inception, but has little of the energy of those films. That’s not a criticism, just a description. Arrival is slow, beautiful, and conceptual. The photography is cool and elegant in a sci-fi Nancy Meyers way. Probably the strongest film element is the editing, which is deft and quietly whip-smart.

 

What the film does well is to integrate the personal story with the alien experience. The two elements aren’t balanced as much as they are each allowed to come to the fore when necessary, and the film ends up with a surprising focus on the human element. To say too much more in that regard would be to rob the viewer of the experience.

 

There are (spoiler alerts ahead) a couple of glaring weaknesses, especially in a film reaching for originality and going full bore into the end-of-the-world questions that arise with most films dealing with the “Why are they here?” questions. One is the difficulty of trying to communicate with them, which is the entire reason for our lead character’s involvement. If spaceships can manage a dozen arrivals around the earth, why haven’t they figured out how to communicate with us?

 

Secondly, there is a rather tiresome display of machismo on the part of world leaders that seems to yank the viewer back to the 1950s in similar alien invasion films. I just didn’t buy the idea of countries wanting to attack the aliens when they so clearly had the upper hand technologically, and common sense dictated a different course.

 

The casting is key to the experience of the film as a whole, as this is essentially a two-person film. The main character is played by Amy Adams, a lovely presence and talented actress. Jeremy Renner, another talented actor, plays the other lead. As in a Hitchcock film, though, the main characters are simply part of the cool, recessive palette of the film. Neither Adams nor Renner is a strong lead in terms of a visceral film experience, and it can be argued that neither of them has demonstrated an ability to carry a film. I kept thinking of what a different and perhaps more relatable film it might have been with someone like Jessica Chastain in the lead. Chastain punches through the screen in all her roles, and would have owned the film in a way that the filmmakers may well not have wanted. The leads’ performances are solid, even touching at times, but they fade into the film as a whole, perhaps so as not to touch the heart or the nerves in the film’s quest to touch your mind.

 

Finally, the film seems like one that could have/should have been a short feature in the La Jetée category, as shorter films sometimes raise simple questions or make a simple statement that is meant to reside in the gut or the brain. Arrival raises legitimate questions about the human experience and relationships in a way that has nothing to do with aliens. But those questions come with the climax of the film, and in the context of a “save the earth” plotline that, after nearly two hours, tends to overshadow the power of its existential concerns.

 

Too, the film’s “exploration” of those concerns is a journey the viewer can only take in memory, once having seen the film. The Sixth Sense was similar in that regard, but was so emotionally engaging that it fairly demanded a quick re-viewing of the film. Arrival’s very coolness and muted pace, coloring and performances make the film’s climax—and its attendant discussable issues—soft, conceptual, and ephemeral. The twist is earned and the issues are well worth exploring. Ultimately, the film ends not with a bang, but a soft, sweet , but still enjoyable, whimper.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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