I respect this more than I like it. It’s a wide release science fiction film that focuses on linguistics rather than all-out war, and it’s an ambitious story with something to say about how we relate to each other and the world. There are themes here having to do with language, communication, time, and pain that usually go untouched by films with similar premises, and that’s something to admire. However, it’s a frustrating film because though it clearly has heart, it’s difficult to truly connect with it underneath the pervasive air of detachment.
It all starts well enough. The opening montage effectively establishes who Louise Banks is and what Villeneuve’s primary focus is, and then we dive into a quiet, personal story that has wide-reaching implications. The seemingly uneventful–by usual “alien invasion” standards–buildup is the most compelling aspect of the film, and the opening stretch nicely showcases the unifying vision Villeneuve and his creative team have. Adams gives an affecting, low-key performance as the film’s main character, Patrice Vermette’s production design lends an aura of uncertainty and awe to the alien communication scenes, Johann Johannsson’s score turns music into an alien language of its own, and Bradford Young’s photography utilizes muted colors to convey a sense of melancholy. It all works very well in tandem at the beginning.
Then, the problems arise. The alien communication scenes, once unique and interesting, become dull and plodding, and the middle act drags a ton before the film rushes into its climax. The pacing is definitely off here, and though you get what Eric Heisserer’s script is attempting to do, not all of it is earned. Unfortunately, the film falls into cliche by letting the large-scale political machinations take over, and the final act is emotional without having the emotional heft of a good buildup. As the film progresses, it throws more and more layers between us and the characters, its potential chipped away as narrative flaws threaten to derail the story. Like I said, it’s certainly ambitious on a thematic level, but what begins as an intriguing human story ends as a flawed, rushed attempt to grab whatever goodwill is left.
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures, Arrival