For a mainstream release, Arrival is an extremely weird movie. An alien movie without a fast pace or blockbuster action scenes, it instead taps into your brain. In that respect, Arrival is awesome and should be admired by all, even despite something being a tiny bit lacking here.
Arrival starts with aliens arriving on Earth in the form of 12 different elongated spaceships. We see this from the perspective of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at an unknown university who is suddenly tasked with translating the newly arrived alien’s strange language, one that cannot be translated verbally but instead through circles with splattered marks around the circumference. This is juxtaposed throughout with visions that Amy Adams gets of her daughter, who died from cancer. As she gets closer and closer to communicating with these aliens, her mind changes in the way that everyone does when learning a new language; their brain starts to process things differently. In an ironic twist, each of the 12 stations located outside the alien ships slowly loses contact with each other, refusing to collaborate as a cause of their different methods of communication with the aliens. Some even start to look for a violent approach.
Despite co-stars like Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I only mentioned Adams because it’s truly her movie. The camera tracks her beautifully, rooted in her own perspective not only through the sequences of her daughter but also through simple camera placement; the film is less concerned with her face then it is with her back (and not the Sir-Mix-A-Lot kind), tracking her various walks at every chance it gets. This is just a starting point to the cerebral nature of this film, rooted in Louise's mind; as the film gets deeper into Louise’s head, we get deeper into our own minds as we think as hard as we can to uncover what’s going on, while the film never really backs down to give us a solid answer until the bizarre ending.
In fact, the film never really gives us an answer on most things which is greatly appreciated. Even the aliens are literally in a mist throughout the film, with their design not even telling much: their legs are long and skinny. Or are they legs? The pair of aliens entitled “Abbott and Costello” (a nod to the iconic “who’s on first, who’s on second, I don’t know who’s on third” bit, since the skit is largely involved around the miscommunication that is also present in this film) could actually be a pair of hands on some sort of B.F.A. (Big Friendly Alien). Or could it be..?
The director, Denis Villeneuve, is a master of mood; his previous film Sicario had a growing dread present throughout that made it one of the best films of 2015. In this film, his direction is discombobulating. The fear the characters have of an unknown life form comes through in full force, Dutch tilts and Hitchcockian dolly zooms aplenty leading the way for a tense and uncomfortable mood. The score by Johann Johansson adds even more to this effect in an eerie yet ethereal sound. The whole film feels like a roller coaster, but not in the usual way that metaphor is used: it has a kinetic energy and a loud wind screaming in your air as you yourself scream in anticipation and horror.
The problem, though, is something that no film can ever achieve perfectly for each audience member: it didn’t connect with me emotionally. While my brain was at work, my heart was beating normally. There’s none of those moments that truly made me emotional, even more so after the ending of the film gave me enough information for me to infer something and it kept on going, making what I had already figured out blatant and uninteresting. There’s also some lines in this film that stray into cheese territory, such as the trailer’s “now that's a proper introduction.”
Arrival is an intelligent film that, in a way, constructs its own language for you: it sets a mystery that you slowly put together through different puzzle pieces, slowly unraveling the whole picture through your interpretation. I may have some minor issues with it, but at the end of the day I’m glad that a mainstream release like this isn’t just popcorn fodder, teaching us while not being a Ted Talk and allowing us to apply the information we’ve learned practically, even if we have an answer sheet nearby.