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Overall Rating

Awesome: 2.94%
Worth A Look50%
Average: 14.71%
Pretty Bad: 29.41%
Total Crap: 2.94%

3 reviews, 16 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Communication Breakdown"
2 stars

“Arrival” is a science-fiction film that is more interested in trafficking in ideas than in elaborate action set pieces in which things blow up real good. As someone who prefers his sci-fi to lean more towards the ambitious and contemplative likes of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris” and “Interstellar” to explosion-heavy nonsense like the “Independence Day” movies, this is an approach that I can easily get behind and indeed, the early scenes have the kind of quiet hypnotic power that leads you to believe that you are watching a genuine classic in the making. The problem is that of the various ideas on display, only a couple of them are unique and interesting. The vast majority of them are either half-baked or cribbed outright from other films of its type and one of them, a shocking last-minute twist designed to make viewers reevaluate everything that they have seen up until then, is so badly misconceived and poorly deployed that it winds up dragging the good stuff down with it.

As the film opens, a dozen spaceships from another world have suddenly appeared and are hovering over a number of seemingly random cities throughout the world. Through the eyes of linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), we observe how the news of the arrival spreads through campus, first through large clusters of students gathered around TVs and later as the phones belonging to the few students that actually show up for class go off practically at once with the latest news. She is soon visited in her office by Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker), who plays her a top-secret recording of the noises made by the creatures during an attempt to communicate with them in the hopes that she can use her superior linguistic skills to decipher what they are saying so that we can respond to them and discover what they want and what their intentions might be.

After initially turning down the offer, Louise eventually agrees and is quickly flown off to Montana, where a ship is hovering over a giant empty field. To help her in her efforts, Louise is teamed up with theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), who is more interested in the science behind the visitors, dubbed “heptapods,” than anything else. After being ushered into the ship by military personnel—a gravity-free area in which they walk/float up an enormous shaft—they get to a large area where, behind glass, are the visitors. As Louise works to understand their language, she is able to puzzle out a phrase that seems to suggest “Offer weapon.” Theoretically, if the aliens were hostile, one would assume that they would have just started blazing away instead going the contemplative route. Alas, that thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to others as tensions begin to rise around the world—China decides to give their visitors an ultimatum, other countries begin to withhold whatever information they have been able to glean and some of the American soldiers unilaterally decide to show force against the aliens. Even if Louise is able to establish true communication with the heptapods, will she be able to do it in time and if she is unable to accomplish this, what will it mean for the fate of the world.

The early scenes of “Arrival” are by far the best. Although I have not exactly been much of a fan of director Denis Villeneuve in the past—his absurdly overpraised “Prisoners” and “Sicario” both struck me as little more than absurdly overblown B-movies laced with enough pretentiousness to convince some people that they were somehow more meaningful than they actually were—I have to admit that he handles the setup of this one beautifully. The moments on campus showing how news of the incredible global phenomenon is spread via social media will feel eerily familiar to many viewers and the setup leading Louise to that field in Montana never strains the bounds of plausibility. The long sequence in which she and Ian enter the spaceship for the first time is wonderfully staged and when we finally get our first glimpse of the aliens, it is certainly memorable. Throw in an excellent and thoroughly convincing performance by the always-reliable Adams as Louise and a good one from the comparatively underutilized Renner as Ian and “Arrival,” at least up to about the halfway point, seems like it is poised to be a real keeper.

Alas, it is right around this point that the entire film suddenly begins to go downhill as the screenplay by Eric Heissener, the author of such deathless classics as “Final Destination 5,” “Lights Out” and the useless remakes of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Thing,” stops marching to the beat of its own drummer and instead begins cribbing elements from such similarly-themed films as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Abyss” and “Contact.” Instead of giving us scenes that more fully explore and explain how Louise and the aliens are able to finally establish a common language and the astonishing impact that this action will have for the future of mankind, we get wholly unconvincing action beats involving mad military personnel, ticking time bombs and the like. This is disappointing enough on its own but the film pretty much goes completely off the rails in the final scenes as the story undergoes a major narrative twist as the result of a certain gift of knowledge that Louise receives from the visitors. I have no idea if this element was a part of the Ted Chiang short story that it is based on or if it was added later by Heissener but while I can see how it might have been effective on the page, it does not work at all on the screen. First off, by making Louise the lone recipient of this particular gift, it makes one wonder why the aliens went through all the effort in the first place. More disconcertingly, while what Louise chooses to do with this gift was presumably meant to lead to an emotionally devastating moment, it instead makes her character come across as unconscionably self-centered and borderline monstrous to boot. This clearly was not the intent but that is how it plays out and even if I hadn’t already had my previously stated issues with the second half of the film, these final scenes would have effectively negated my feelings towards it as a whole.

“Arrival” is one of those movies that is frustrating to watch—and even more frustrating to review—because when it is good, it is really, really good but when it winds up going south, it does it so completely that it hardly seems possible that the same people could have been responsible for both halves. It is certainly more ambitious than a lot of current genre fare and it has moments of great power but it simply never finds a way to tie them all together in a dramatically or emotionally satisfying manner. Too bad because if ever there was a time when we could have used a film stressing the importance of communication between two groups that seem to have absolutely no common ground between them, it would be now.

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originally posted: 11/12/16 08:25:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2016 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2016 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2016 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Savannah Film Festival For more in the 2016 Savannah Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/28/18 Palmer Bleak colors, bleak score, completely drab plotline - a thoroughly depressing movie. 2 stars
9/09/17 morris campbell A REAL SCI-FI CLASSIC FORGET AVATAR 5 stars
5/08/17 Bonnie Great review. Most reviewers have lauded this film, but your review nails the disconnects. 3 stars
4/23/17 steve i fell asleep. extremely over rated 3 stars
3/25/17 Mr Sensitive Infinitely more painful than my recent kidney stones 1 stars
3/23/17 Willy For cerebral sci-fiers only 2 stars
3/15/17 Plamen It goes downhill as soon as they meet the aliens. Sci-Fi for adults is hard to find. 4 stars
3/08/17 RICHARD CARTER Moving but fails to deliver insight 4 stars
2/20/17 mr.mike Slow and complex, my rating is for sci-fi fans only. 4 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell smart scifi with emotion see it 4 stars
2/04/17 Meep Has its moments, but ultimately uninteresting 3 stars
1/17/17 Langano Well done. 4 stars
12/23/16 NancyN This was painful to watch -- and I'm an actual linguist. 2 stars
11/13/16 Luisa The good storyline and twist at the end does NOT make up for the dullness, sorry. 3 stars
11/12/16 Orpy Just because you're a linguist doesn't mean you can translate alien smoke signals. 3 stars
11/12/16 Bob Dog Cool ideas contained in a dull movie. 2 stars
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Directed by
  Denis Villeneuve

Written by
  Eric Heisserer

  Amy Adams
  Jeremy Renner
  Forest Whitaker
  Michael Stuhlbarg
  Tzi Ma
  Mark O'Brien

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