Director Denis Villeneuve is a difficult creature. Or, rather, he isn’t, but he sure thinks he is, which is what makes his academic, stiffly formal but not actually intellectual films so difficult to respond to. He’s a formalist, but an odd mark in that category. Certainly, he prefers a bold, singular, “visionary” image – one steeped in unblinking awe and gorgeous depth of Meaning – rather than a more open-minded or iridescent style that could provoke too many reactions, too much alterity, from audience members. Villeneuve’s films have “points”, and his style is buttoned-up and sculpted to guide his audience to that end destination along the path of least resistance, not to invite contradictory perspectives. The ambiguities in his films really are just gossamer sleights of hand, faux-intellectual jargon for people who equate superficial moral complication for genuine intelligence. However, his films also – up until Arrival – bore the caliber of a work-for-hire, a journeyman’s lack of overt stylistic manipulation, as though he was directing to the material rather than massaging the material to fit his interests, basically. Because of this, his films tend to coalesce around at an odd and incomplete gap, too baroquely stylized not to insist on themselves but not stylistically inflected enough to use their images to really challenge the cinematic status quo. He’s like an apprehensive, faint-hearted Kubrick, and who wants that?
Some might call this a necessary compromise, trickling drips of auteurism into a mostly mainstream production. I call it vaguely pretentious. Every minute of Arrival, for the most part, is extraordinarily on the nose. It knows exactly where it’s taking us. Villeneuve plants meaning and then tries to surprise us with it, which is why he has drawn such admiration from the Nolan fanboys and the Fincher-cult. He’s of the David Fincher school of sheer technical perfection, and Arrival is if nothing else adamant about dotting every I and crossing every T. It’s extremely sober, deliberately curated, always on the lookout for a bespoke composition that is, in reality, limned from a “classic movie shots” coffee table book.
But before I subject Arrival to my ire, I’ll take a step back and give the movie its chance. Because I did that with Sicario, and I got a killer fire-and-brimstone treatment of the War on Drugs as a wasting disease eating away the skin of two nations. So, Arrival, then. Adapting a Ted Chiang story about the arrival of a dozen obelisk-like alien saucers, the screenplay introduces presumably famous linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams, as always in search of an Oscar, and wonderful as always here) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to military Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who brings them to the American alien landing site in rural Montana so they can get to work deciphering the puzzle of the alien’s language.
Their actual workspace is self-evidently a metaphor, or at least a pseudo-poetic embodiment, of their mission. A cavernous and uncertain corridor of the aliens’ ship is dimly lit not only to represent the fear of a lack of knowledge but the possibility to fill the space with new understanding. A glass pane – a literal and metaphorical barrier to connection – is a bulwark between the aliens and the humans, the former visualized through a subfuscous mist that further shovels stylistic coal on the film’s creation of a space of the mind, a Rosetta stone that decodes the film’s mysteries by answering them for us in the visual architecture of the mise-en-scene.
And Arrival is, in the moment, wholly effective as a reconstituted riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a paragon of adult science fiction and a totem to the possibilities of the genre. Cinematographer Bradford Young is on hand with a cornucopia of evocatively lensed images varying from whisp-thin to punishingly opaque in texture. (While Young is as skilled as ever, I for one would rather he mind-meld with frequent collaborator and friend Andrew Dosunmu next time.) But Banks and Donnelly are academics and problem-solvers on the hunt for solution and completion. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Villeneuve’s style could compromise them or corrupt them, threaten their quest through an amalgam of contradictions, maybe suggest that the answer is beyond us, that their understanding of the situation is incomplete? But his vision is theirs, which is, for the most part, the American rationalist vision of problem-solving and goal-orientation, and his film would wilt outside of that mental structure.
Which means that Arrival is eminently skilled at sensation but not perception, or rather, it can muster a phalanx of impactful images in service of a perspective on life that is hardly revelatory even though it thinks it is. Every image is entirely calculated to engorge the emotional tone rather than mess it up, and the film’s finale suggests not a mind-melting need for perceptual readjustment so much as a story well told, every comma and period in its place, far too “perfect” to evoke the variant of discovery the film thinks it is tapping into. The final revelation is more nuanced than a B-grade twist, but it still succumbs to the deficiencies of most twists: they play as revelations, knocking at our door with the proposition of new perception and altered consciousness, but they close-down a pathway for every door that they render ajar. Arrival is too conditioned to pay attention to its own story – too focused on finishing its narrative – to actually consider the implications of its story in the first place. It never treads into the murky abyss of ambivalence or stylistic fuzziness, as though it is so assured in its intelligence that it must hand-hold us. It wants us to be strangers in strange lands, but it’s exceedingly comfortable once you scrape away the 300-person freshman-seminar language-lecture malarkey. This is a beautiful film, but its beauty is hermetically sealed.
But I shouldn’t be so crabby. As an existentialist fiction (surprise, I know), the script does seed rumors of emotional weight that it doesn’t denature by smacking us over the head, namely the matter of a marital separation and the personal weight of “knowing” – or believing you know, and trusting what you believe you know – when even your most experienced collaborator defies you. There are missteps that are equally obvious: perpetrating pretensions around every corner – one early quasi-monologue about kangaroos has the ever-green must of something stumbled upon in a trivia competition and reheated in a microwave for fast-food intelligence in this film. But I will give credit to the film for its faultlessly edited conclusion (again, less profound than the film thinks, but still) and for an understanding of procedure that flexes the mental rather than physical faculties of the brain.
And I will tip my hat for a late-film excursion where Villeneuve (having, I suppose, earned the freedom to go way-out in a big-budget production) tips his own hat to Terrence Malick for a sub-Tree of Life vacation into another stylistic time zone where the editing practices the mantra of ellipsis and the camera glides effervescently through the air as the film presents an impressionistic collage of life glimpsed non-linearly. It doesn’t have anything on Terrence Malick, of course, but it is the only moment of the film that actually feels like it earns the “new way of seeing the world” credibility Banks is so keen on intoning throughout. It is the only point where the film forgets its concerns with the intentions of our visitors and explores humanity’s intentions, and the schisms in humanity’s intentions, and the schisms in humanity’s perceptions of other humanity’s intentions. Ultimately, Arrival’s harshest life lesson, at least for its sterling conclusion, is not a premonition of our future but an onerous glimpse of our present, a reminder that we are all someone’s aliens whether we like it or not.
Although ham-fisted, I also appreciate a late film suggestion that humanity can in fact unite but only over our one true shared language: loss and loneliness, a collective binding agent able to counteract even the most violent of schisms. Still, these brilliant successes are pockmarks in the face of an essentially adequate, sedate film. Admittedly, if the whole point of the film is mankind’s struggle to arrive at a more untested imaginative state of mind, I suppose the film’s refusal to break down its linear narrative confines until the end could be read less as a statement of failure on the filmmaker’s part than as the filmmaker’s successful recognition that humanity has bungled this quest. But the film doesn’t quite earn this added wrinkle, at least to my mind.
So Arrival is admirable, maybe, but hardly revelatory, especially in light of the cornucopia of independent films which deal with Arrival’s themes in ways it is too timid to commit to. At random, look to an essentially unknown work like Song Yoon-Kim’s 2006 In Between Days for a science fiction film about communication that deals with the knots and thorns in human responsiveness and connection much more openly and without the appended narrative gigantism of attaching the fate of the entire world onto one person’s emotional experiences. That film is set in an anonymous Canadian city in the ostensible present, but its world is far more “otherworld” than Arrival’s, not because there are diegetic aliens but because the style of the film and its means of purveying and understanding information are alien to the ways people (and most films) usually understand interaction. This film, and many like it, truly destabilize our project of knowing, genuinely push us into the deep end of experience and the limits of our perception. Arrival is about acquiring new consciousness, but films like In Between Days actually ask us to acquire new consciousness to understand them through the means of watching the film. That is real science fiction.
Or, to reframe: truly stimulating films do not talk about different languages from within the stability and comfort of their own language; they summon new visual languages for experience. Among the languages these films do not adhere to that Arrival refuses to challenge: narrative gigantism, outsized consequence, ticking-time-bomb suspense, mostly linear relations between the signifier and signified. These alternate films introduce a language that is always tentative and risks dissipating into the ether even as – perhaps because – the film plunges into the fray of intellectual combat. They’re frail, brittle, prone to evaporating and being torn asunder at any second. Arrival, comparatively, is a disciple of the Kubrick school of omnipotent meaning, of cleanly and carefully processed information. Only Villeneuve is no Kubrick. He wants to challenge the language of A-picture science fiction, but Arrival is ultimately unwilling to corrupt the box office potential afforded by adhering to the dominant language of tent-pole drama filmmaking. It wants to upset us but refuses to upset the apple-cart of its forebears. It is too insecure to actually delve into its insecurities. To paraphrase a ubiquitous parlance when discussing this kind of film, it’s what a semi-thinking man might refer to as “thinking man’s science fiction”.