People love space! People love aliens! And guess what? I love both space and aliens too! Guess that makes me a people…um…person. (Edit: I apologize for that joke…sorry people) Anyways, most first contact movies are typically done in a “they’re going to kill us” or “they’re trying to warn us about something else that’s going to kill us” manner. Yet, Arrival looks at the idea of first contact in an almost academic way, and the result is quite a confusing one. Allow me to elaborate.
Story: Here we follow a professor of linguistics who is recruited by the US Army to help communicate with two aliens that have landed in the middle of Montana. She is joined by a theoretical physicist and they have to work together to find out why the aliens are there before China and Russia start the first space war…or a star war if you may. This concept is very intriguing as the goal of out ‘heroes’ is basic communication and not survival (though one could argue that communication is needed to survive but I’d say to stop nit-picking). However despite an original concept, there are some very cliched tropes weaved within (such as the radical soldier listening to radical podcasts that fuel his…well ‘radicalness’) and while the big reveal is a unique one, it goes overboard in the last five minutes and kind of ruins everything (I’ll expand on that later).
Acting: The stars here are Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, and together they are no less than good. They convey their characters well and you care about their problems and successes. Whitaker, an Army Colonel, is the weakest of the group but still does a good job. My biggest gripe here is that they just aren’t fantastic; one step away from being truly memorable. I know I’m just nit-picking at this point but hey…it’s my job people.
Presentation: The movie looks good; everything from the landscape where the ship is located to the aliens themselves. The big thing here is that the movie is quiet. Really really very quiet. There is some ‘music’ (if you can call it that) once in a while but a majority of the movie is empty and it absolutely fits the movie. It really sets the mood. The only bad thing here is that the movie is kinda dark but that’s a small problem and can be easily overlooked.
Effect: Ok. Let me continue what I was saying in the “Story” section. Throughout the movie, you get hints and sneak peeks at what the aliens’ reason for being on Earth is for, and though I predicted what that reveal would be shortly into the film, it was still a unique one to see unfold. As the movie hits its climax, you can piece together what has been going on the entire time, and this is where the movie should’ve ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, it drags on for another 10 minutes or so and keeps explaining what is going on, rather than leaving the untold details up to the audience to imagine for themselves. Don’t get me wrong. This is a great movie but I just wish they would think better of the audience and let us leave the theater thinking about the untold details. Instead we are spoon-fed every last detail and I left on a sour note to an otherwise wonderful film.
Other: Like I touched on above, this movie’s biggest problem can be boiled down to the idea of “telling” rather than “showing.” For example, when they recruit Amy Adams’ character, the army barges in and essentially says “hey…remember when you helped us with that stuff…can you help us again?” Rather than showing us briefly that she can really do what she can do (perhaps translating some bizarre ancient language for a class demonstration), they just tell us and it’s lazy. Again, I will say that it’s still a fun film and I was interested for the duration.
My summary here is as follows; this movie is not the best space/alien/first contact movie I’ve seen but it doesn’t mean it’s not good. This is a good movie. Just not great.