Science fiction is more popular right now than ever… at least if you’re willing to have a sort of loose definition of what the genre covers. Six of the top ten highest grossing movies of last year could be called science fiction if you’re willing to expand the genre to include films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Inside Out, but even though those movies involve killer robots, DNA manipulation, and symbolically technological manifestations of the mind none of them quite have that sci-fi smell to them. Even the more unambiguously futuristic of these sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 ultimately feel more like action movies than like true ruminations on humanities future and its relation to technology. Movies that really truly feel like pure science fiction rather than a sci-fi twist on some other genres are pretty rare. The only noteworthy movies from last year which would seem to fit the bill are The Martian, Ex Machina, maybe Tomorrowland and possibly Chappie. Ex Machina in particular seemed to be the real standard bearer for “thinking man’s sci-fi” and while it was made on a very small scale it seemed to have a pretty remarkable cultural impact for what it was. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the kind of brainy sci-fi that a certain kind of slightly nerdy cinephille craves is pretty rare so when one actually gets made it tends to be a pretty big event, and that’s why movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are so hotly anticipated.
Arrival appears to be set in the present or very near future and begins when twelve large cylindrical alien spaceships suddenly arrive on earth and begin to hover over twelve separate and seemingly random places on earth including one ship that stopped in a largely uninhabited location in Montana which is quickly cordoned off and isolated by the military. The ships do not show any overt signs of aggression but cause great amounts of worry among the populace just the same. All this is shown from the perspective of a linguist working at a university named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who seems to be overcoming a great loss as the film begins. Shortly after “the arrival” she is contacted by a US Army Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker), who knew of her from some previous top secret translation work she did for the military. After some convincing Weber agrees to bring Banks out to the site and see the UFO for herself. There she learns that the military has been able to board the ship periodically and see the aliens but have no real way to speak with them in their rather unusual language, but think that Banks and a scientist she’ll been working with named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) might have what it takes to break through and determine what these aliens want.
Arrival is directed by a guy named Denis Villeneuve who’s made a number of movies recently that I’ve been less enamored with than a lot of people. I thought Prisoners was kind of ridiculous, that Enemy was rather ill-conceived, and that Sicario wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. However, most of my complaints about all those movies tended to be leveled more towards the various writers involved than at Villeneuve’s direction. I’ve always held out hope that when Villeneuve finally found the right script that he could pull off something special and with Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival, which is based on a Nebula winning novella by Ted Chiang, I think he’s finally found material that’s worthy of his talent.
The film clearly resembles Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact in that it presents something of a procedural exploration of how the world would react to a potential first contact situation with an alien intelligence but there are also hints of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the way the government struggles to communicate with the aliens and in the way the characters take their encounters fairly personally. What follows is an exploration in the difficulties of communication as the Amy Adams character tries to figure out how to get through to these aliens while the world goes mad around her. Adams, who rarely disappoints, continues to does a great job of anchoring this movie. In the last couple of years she’s done a great job of transitioning from her early “adorkable” roles into a more well-rounded actress who can really carry a movie. Jeremy Renner is also a solid co-star, though I’m not quite sure what Forrest Whitaker doing with his accent in this. Villeneuve also has some solid collaborators behind the scenes like his longtime composer of choice Jóhann Jóhannsson but I was a lot less impressed with the film’s cinematography by Bradford Young. Young is a young (no pun intended) DP who is viewed as something of a wunderkind by the media, but I don’t really see the appeal. His movies all look like they’re being played on TVs that have had the brightness jacked up with all the blacks being diluted into greys. Given the setting this isn’t quite as distracting as it was in Selma but I still don’t really care for it.
Arrival is kind of a difficult film to talk about without going into spoilers. As you can probably guess there’s something of a twist about three quarters of the way into the film which makes you rethink a lot of what came before and it’s certainly something that takes a minute to wrap your head around. I’m not going to take a deep dive into it right now but it is a twist with implications that are at once both fascinating and not entirely logical but I think I mostly liked it. I don’t see Arrival going down in the annals of great science fiction as a classic of the genre, but it is solid, certainly smarter than what you’d usually expect from what looks like a very expensive movie from Paramount Pictures. Maybe that says something about the low standards of Hollywood right now… or maybe it suggests that we’re a little spoiled from all the truly excellent science fiction we’ve had in the past and the very high standard that was set by movies like The Abyss, The Day the Earth Stood Still or the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. Either way, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing even if it kind of falls into a strange middle ground between summer blockbuster and award contender.