Release: November 11, 2016
Genre: Sci-Fic/Drama (allegedly), Farce/Melodrama (actually)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
Starring: Amy Adams as Louise Banks, Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, Forest Whitaker as Colonel G.T. Weber, Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent David Halpern, and Tzi Ma as General Shang
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
“Arrival” is what happens when the Oscar bait vampire sinks its fangs into the science fiction genre. The film fails on almost every note that it tries to hit, yet insists upon itself in the worst way imaginable. From the opening narration, the entire plot of the film is laid out before you, rendering the remaining 111 minutes after the film’s opening completely pointless. You see, Louise, the weepy female cliche of a main character, is narrating the film in the present tense whilst also referencing events that have not yet come to pass because future Louise decoded the aliens’ language, so past Louise knows all future events because the aliens’ language is free form so if you can decipher it, you become the “Highlander” and can see all future events. I wish I was joking, but leaving out the reference to my favourite 1986 cheese fest, that is the plot of this film. A plot that is, barring a few details, entirely transparent right from the beginning. It would take an individual of Moose Mason or Homer Simpson level stupidity to not see this coming a mile away. It’s a twist so trite and transparent that M. Night Shyamalan would shake his head in uninterested disgust. The film is also not helped by it’s dialogue, which is equal parts hammy and saccharine, particularly the interactions between Amy Adams’ Louise Banks and captain forgettable himself Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly. This isn’t helped by the mumbling, breathy, and melodramatic manner in which the actors deliver their lines. There is no sense of tension at any point in this weak attempt at “thinking man’s” soft sci-fi thanks to, again, the opening narration that all but tells you the entire plot of the film.
If you think my characterization of this film as some combination of farce and melodrama is harsh, please step back and look at the movie objectively. Leave aside the idea that Youtube movie critics have seeded in your head that this film is the great white hope of science fiction cinema. Every character in this film is a victim of over-characterization. Adams’ character isn’t just emotionally distraught, she’s too emotionally distraught. It is the only thing that defines her character. Renner’s character, despite being a scientist, is the hapless male boob and nothing else. Forest Whitaker’s character is the most one note “hard ass military tough guy” since “Full Metal Jacket’s” Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and Animal Mother. If this film represents the future of sci-fi at the cinema, as ever pasty beta male with a web cam and a limited knowledge of the genre seems to think it does, let me off the train at the next stop, please.
This film is, however unintentional it may be, part of something of an epidemic that has been sweeping through sci-fi, particularly soft sci-fi, in recent years. The subjugation of the fantastic and the wondrous, of the speculative and scientific to the sentimentally melodramatic, and to phony moralizing. It fits in well alongside drivel like John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere,” or Rachel Swirsky’s abysmally stupid “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” I wouldn’t be surprised if “Arrival” picks up a Hugo nod for “Best Dramatic Presentation” later this year. It hits all the right notes, after all, it’s pretentious, it’s sentimental, and any shred of sci-fi takes a backseat to said pretension and sentimentality. If you’re looking for good science fiction, look elsewhere. Drama? You’ll find none here. If, however, you are a pretentious and uninteresting git looking for the latest peace of pop culture pseudo-philosophy to latch onto as a substitute for a personality, then “Arrival” is your film.