The Arrival (2016)

I’ve been a fan of Denis Villeneuve since I saw Enemy in theaters twice back in 2013. That film is a waking nightmare, which only makes sense on the most subconscious of levels. Villeneuve seems to have two directors inside him, because Enemy bares little resemblance to his other two major English-language feature films: Prisoners, an emotionally brutal suspense film; and Sicario, a nihilistic drug war thriller. Both are relatively straight-forward films, with little of the dream-like flourishes that make Enemy, and now The Arrival, especially haunting.

The plot is relatively simple: a series of obelisk-looking UFOs have begun hovering over many different parts of the world. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is asked to figure out how to communicate with whatever is inside the UFO hovering over the United States. She’s joined by Jeremy Renner, playing a theoretical physicist who seems to serve no real purpose in the film except to be charismatic despite a total lack of chemistry with Amy Adams. As time goes on the film takes a very familiar nihilistic view of humanity, waves half-heartedly at an anti-war message, and then flies off into space with nearly no explanation as to why any of it happened.

In the middle of The Arrival, the film shifts perspective and, as one online commenter put it, “goes all Snowcrash“. We spend so much of the film just following Amy Adams around, once she’s busy grinding away at her project there’s no way to get us a wider perspective, so they just dump a bunch of exposition on us via a Jeremy Renner voice over. In a way, this feels like a little documentary stuck into the middle of the film, acting as a bit of an emotional intermission. I remember that this sequence opens with a wide, beautiful shot of Montana, like a breath of fresh air.

The film tends to play it pretty straight, but as Amy Adam’s journey begins to kick into high gear, a lot of Villeneuve’s dreamier techniques come into play. My favorite moment was the dream sequence where one of the visitors appears in the room with her. It’s a minor scare, not as much of a jump as the ending of Enemy, but as a fan of that film, it made me grin.

I would almost have nothing bad to say about The Arrival (that I haven’t said already), were it not for the ending sequence making me feel like the explanation was being pounded into my skull. When recommending the film to people I have said, “When you feel emotionally satisified and you understand what happened, just leave the theater at that point because nothing else is going to happen worth sitting through.” The movie almost made me cry, but then kept going for another several minutes until I no longer cared about what I was watching and just wanted to get out of the theater. I can only assume focus group testing is to blame for the overwrought, over-explained ending in this case, so I’m going to give them a pass.

I went into The Arrival feeling like I had a spoiler in my back pocket. A friend of mine on Instagram posted a picture of a coffee cup stain, hashtagged “#thearrival”, and once the movie got going I went, “Oh, goddamnit, the big twist of the film is going to be some stupid bullshit involving coffee cup stains.” Imagine my relief when this turned out not to be the case. If you’re staring at the screen and you’re thinking, “coffee cup stains”, that is way less important than you may think it is.

The Arrival ultimately didn’t feel like an instant classic to me. It was clever, beautiful, very nearly emotionally haunting, and I’ve recommended it to everyone who has any interest in science fiction, but there was just a little something missing. I’m not quite sure what that something is exactly. I feel that even Enemy, Prisoners, and Sicario all suffer from it as well. Maybe it’s a certain level of emotional detatchment that I can’t quite shake… that dreamy, nothing’s quite real feeling.

That said, I am thrilled that Villeneuve is directing Blade Runner 2049. I hope that a little of that Enemy-style darkness comes out in that film. On some level Ridley Scott films share the same aforementioned “dreamy detachment”, so that may work out for the benefit of Blade Runner 2049.