Arrival ***

Solid science fiction with a few heady ideas and an emotional ending.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Sometimes a good movie just doesn’t grab you. “Arrival” is one of those movies. It’s definitely well made, well acted, and well, it has some cool ideas. Despite this, I simply can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t amount to much.

Alien spaceships quietly arrive and hover over various points of our planet. As no communication comes from within, humanity’s wonder turns to anxiety. Contact is eventually made, but the sounds emanating from the mollusk-like aliens cannot be deciphered and as such, offer no solace. With their motives unclear, fear begins to trump rationality; humanity is going to tear itself, or the visitors, apart. The U.S. military, scrambling for answers, enlists linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help. With the clock ticking, the two attempt to translate the alien language and figure out if these visitors are friend or foe.   

There’s a lot to admire in “Arrival.” Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner acquit themselves nicely, as always, and Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) directs with his usual confidence, patience, and eye for beautiful compositions. Whereas many movies today value noise and speed above all else, it’s nice to experience a film that takes its time and, with an evocative soundtrack by Johann Johannsson, creates a real atmosphere.

The aliens are also a nice surprise. Called heptapods, they are different from what usually passes as aliens in movies. While the special effects used to bring them to life are basically adequate, it’s their design that stands out. They’re not the usual bipedal, human-like aliens that speak the way we do. They truly are, well, alien.

There’s another aspect to the heptapods that stands out even more than their design, and it points to some heady ideas, the very thing I look for in a good science-fiction stories. To reveal it, though, would spoil a major portion of the movie, and the enjoyment of “Arrival” hinges on its surprises.

And while these surprises are well executed, they are also a part of the film’s problems. The film presents a mystery, hides clues in plain site (a neat trick, this), and at just the right moment answers the right question and, like falling dominoes, a chain reaction begins, revealing the bigger picture. Except, the bigger picture isn’t that big. Worse, there simply isn’t that much to the movie outside of its revelations; the characters aren’t terribly deep, and the heady ideas aren’t really delved into.

The movie just feels a little scant. Possible reason: It’s based on a short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and feels stretched at nearly two hours. 

But audiences seem to be responding to it in ways that I didn’t. When I was hesitant to give my opinion to a studio representative waiting by the exit, he exclaimed, with misty eyes, “I thought it was stunning.” Stunning! Now that’s a word I would have never used.  But maybe it was and I’m just a killjoy.

Dear reader, I must confess. I’m a human being. As such, what happens before and during a screening can affect my opinion. After suffering panic attacks the night before the screening (two words: election night.), I was exhausted. Then, as the lights went out and the movie started, the screen didn’t light up. The film was underprojected, washing out what looked like some beautiful cinematography. Add to that an unappreciative viewer snoring audibly behind me and a big lady next to me who thought it was wise to wrestle for my armrest for the whole movie. Put all of that together and you have a recipe for disaster.

So, yes, maybe all of that colored my opinion. If I could communicate with my future self - who will have watched the movie again at home, hopefully in ideal conditions - he will probably tell me that I will eventually be embarrassed by this review and by my misunderstanding of the film. But I don’t have that ability, so I’ll just say this: Right now, I’m not in love with “Arrival,” but at least we’re platonic friends.

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