It has been two months since Arrival was released in the US and it has since received near-critical acclaim internationally. Its delay in reaching our shores (Singapore is one of the last countries to watch it) is a mystery – I’ll simply presume that distribution rights in Asia got in the way of the regular international release schedule. But enough about that, it’s here, and this is why you should watch it:
The problem with Arrival is that no amount of plot summary can truly prepare you for this masterpiece. In fact, very little can. Fortunately, with a fabulous cast and crew led by director Denis Villeneuve and championed by leading actor Amy Adams, Arrival defies all expectations, proving to be a must-see for any science fiction lover.
When a dozen alien vessels show up all around the world, the US military reaches out to linguist Louise Banks (Adams) to decipher their strange inhuman language and discover their purpose. Slowly but surely, Banks collaborates with other international teams to speed up the learning process. In the midst of her work, Banks has flashes of her time with her young daughter. When communicating with the aliens inevitably takes longer than anticipated, the highly paranoid militaries of the world’s major superpowers stymies any further cooperation. Their increasingly aggressive responses to one another threaten to plunge the world into a new global conflict.
The result of adapting a short story for the big screen, screenwriter Eric Heisserer seems to feel compelled to raise the stakes of the movie, adding a whole new international dimension to the plot that was absent in Story of Your Life, the 1998 award-winning short story by Ted Chiang that the movie is based on. This gives the film much needed gravitas, and yet allows it to deviate significantly from the cliched alien invasion tropes.
Unfortunately, the inevitable bloating of the plot happens at the climatic scenes of Arrival. A stark contrast to the leisurely, almost languid, pace of the scenes that precede it, the turning point of the movie comes across as being hastily shoehorned in, with little time (and effort) spent on the resolution. That is not to say that the movie’s climax is without merit – it speaks quite firmly about the greater geopolitical issues facing the world today – one that seems more eerily appropriate now than I’m sure the movie’s cast and crew could ever have imagined.
That said, in many ways it’s still pretty impressive how faithful Arrival is to Story of Your Life. Many scenes in the movie are lifted, almost exactly, from events in the story. Heisserer himself admits that he constantly referred back to the source material. And yet, the two could not be more different in purpose, and it all comes down to a seemingly small and insignificant change to the plot.
(Alas, since this review is meant to be spoiler-free, I cannot discuss it, but I can direct you – after you’ve watched the film, of course, to the spoiler-filled commentary of the brilliant programmer and film critic Abigail Nussbaum.)
One can only presume the purpose of Heisserer’s choice to change the plot was to breathe some much needed emotion and heart into the film. Story of Your Life and by extension, Arrival, both lend themselves to the genre of “hard” science fiction – that is, the use of accurate, credible and logical scientific frameworks to build the story around. Even though the star of the plot is linguistics, often thought of as a “soft” science, both Story of Your Life and Arrival accord it much-deserved rigour, which ironically drains the sentiment from the practical application of it.
This is where the film’s indubitable core and saviour, it’s lead Amy Adams delivers in spades. By placing her in the midst of this harsh science fiction plot, she brings her ability to give life to a capable and headstrong main character who would be unlikeable and difficult to empathise with, if portrayed by a lesser actor. Adams gives Arrival not only a very human protagonist, but brings an earnestness to the role that make you forget you’re watching a science fiction film, if not for the fact that there are two huge aliens filling your screen. To their credit, Adams’ co-stars Jeremy Renner, who plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist, and Forest Whitaker, who plays Colonel Weber, manage to hold their own in scenes with Adams.
Director Denis Villaneuve brings these disparate elements together with a deft touch, creating a science-fiction film that is largely melancholy and serene, interspersed with frantic bursts of action. There is an applaudable use of economy of scale – little cinematographic decisions convey the weight of the situation without the need for complex sets or scenes. These directing cues are emboldened by the film’s ethereal, experimental, often discomforting score by Villaneuve’s long-time collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson, creating a truly memorable cinematic experience.
If there is any criticism of the film to be made, at all, other than the clunky climatic scene I mentioned earlier, It would be the almost lazy casting of the prolific Tzi Ma as General Shang, a prominent Chinese leader. Surely, surely, there are other Chinese or Chinese-American actors out there who can play the role without resorting to the tried and tested film veteran. In this particular case, I felt Tzi Ma’s large body of work was detrimental, as it was hard to take his character serious. But of course, if it wasn’t obvious, this is really a minute criticism in the grand scheme of things.
All that said, do watch Arrival prepared for a thought-provoking mental journey. Watch it without sufficient rest, and the visual and auditory spaces in the movie could lull you to pockets of sleep, as it did me, to my utter disappointment.
Arrival opens today in Singapore