I was thinking…
…movie trailers can often be misleading. Sometimes they are meant to evoke a certain feeling that is utterly absent in the actual film. Sometimes they incorporate every single good part of a film and you don’t find out the other 98 percent is total crap until after you’ve wasted two hours watching the whole thing. I’m looking at you, Strange Wilderness.
And then there are films that jump genres…like Arrival.
When language professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams—Batman v Superman)(you can read the review here) arrives at work one day, she is one of the last in the world to discover a dozen massive alien ships have arrived on earth, hovering over twelve disparate locations around the globe.
Because of her previous work translating for the United States military, it is not long before Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker—Rogue One) comes knocking at her office. She is flown to the alien ship–or shell, as they are being called–in Montana, meeting a civilian mathematician named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner—Captain America: Civil War [review here], Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation [review here], Avengers: Age of Ultron [review here].
Once she arrives, she is told part of the shell opens up every 18 hours and they will enter, approaching a white mist-filled chamber in which the aliens appear. Louise and party, encased in bio-hazard suits, attempt to make contact with the aliens but have little luck at first.
During her downtime, Louise is plagued by dreams and visions of her daughter, named Hannah. The dreams and visions are sporadic and span the girl’s entire lifetime. But the visions do help Louise figure out ways in which to communicate with the aliens and so she does not give them too much credence–at least from the audience’s point of view–until later.
Utilizing every one of her abilities, Louise eventually figures out how to write to the aliens–beings who use circular symbols to represent complex sentence structure. Unfortunately, when one of their messages involves the phrase ‘use weapon,’ the American government starts to panic.
In the other locations around the globe, specifically China, Russia and the Middle East, tempers and paranoia rise to the point where they cut off communication with the rest of the landing sites. China goes so far as to declare a state of war against the aliens.
Racing against time, Louise needs to discover the aliens’ true purpose on earth while making sense of her cryptic visions before either a global conflict breaks out or the aliens unleash mass genocide on the human race.
Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?
There is no doubt Louise is the primary figure in this story. There was no secret she would be carrying the weight of it from the word go; we could infer as much from the trailer. What we were not led to expect, however, was how important those visions of her daughter would be.
Without divulging more, it is fair to say Arrival is a true puzzle movie in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s earlier work. In other words, don’t expect it all to make sense at first. Don’t expect it to make sense until the credits are rolling. And for some people, it may not fit together until well after that.
For you see, we, especially in the Western hemisphere, are raised and, frankly, wired to think of things in a linear fashion: our writing, our speech and certainly our perception of time. If you are not open to thinking in a non-linear way during or by the end of this film, you will be lost.
But therein lies the beauty of it. Too many–far too many–films nowadays pander to the lowest common denominator. It is all to frequent an occurrence for those of us whose IQ’s hover a good U.S. Grant above the average American’s, to feel as though we are being patronized when we settle in for a movie. But, considering most movie studio executives can barely spell ‘executives,’ that does not come as a surprise. It does mean, however, it is enjoyable to watch a film that makes one actually think and want to think.
Amy Adams is joined by a small but stellar primary cast. She, Renner and certainly Whitaker are proving themselves to be fantastic players, adaptable to any role. In fact, I had to remind myself that playing Colonel Weber is the same man playing the war-weary, crippled veteran Saw Gerrera in this winter’s Rogue One. He may not take the limelight in Arrival, but he still makes his presence known.
Setting out to establish the proper mood for the film, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young, shoot the majority of it in muted tones and an omnipresent gray scale. Without delving too far into the brilliant white or deep black, the film world is perpetually enshrouded with mist and overcast skies. This serves not only to parallel the feeling of mystery throughout, but makes those moments where the sun breaks through all the more stunning. The reveal of the shell as Louise is brought to the site in Montana is one such moment. Although carpeted in low-slung clouds, the green hills and grassland are lit in such a way as if to signal there is a light up ahead for our protagonist.
Contributing to the eerie, otherworldly feel is the minimalist score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. As we are first treated to the sight of the alien ship, his music permeates the air like whale song–a fitting aural connection considering the size and shape of the craft. His work in no way detracts from the mood and is far from the typical popcorn sort of musical score one associates with many films these days. It feels as much a living, breathing entity as the aliens themselves.
There are some faults I cannot ignore, of course. The case of an army captain who is influenced to place a bomb on board the shell feels horribly tacked on and sort of peters out with little consequence. Furthermore, said soldier is dubiously convinced to commit his violent actions by listening to a rabble rousing talk radio/television host in what I felt is a blatant attempt to point fingers at real world conservative talk radio personalities.
The moment with the bomb does illustrate one of Alfred Hitchcock’s theories on suspense, however. If we see a bomb sitting under a table, we are in a state of suspense–a state that crescendos until the bomb explodes. Without that prior knowledge of the danger, the explosion comes merely as a surprise and, therefore, has little lasting effect.
The two minutes of unnecessary plot points aside, Arrival works as puzzle film, suspense film and drama to keep you on the edge of your seat until the final minutes of the movie–which are actually the first few minutes of the movie.
But, don’t forget, the film also makes that genre-jump. In the words of my wife (spoiler alert): “It was a f***ing love story?!”
Ammo Dump rating: 8 out of 10 tacked-on bombs
I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show every Friday afternoon at 4:10 pm. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on @ALphaEXray.. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter
Run time: 116 minutes (1 hours 56 minutes)