I think I have a pretty good understanding of why people have so much contempt for movie critics. A great portion of the job involves poking holes in creative endeavors designed to entertain. For the most part a critic is like someone on sidewalks of New York during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and movies are the gigantic character balloons. There are people who spend a lot of time making those massive spectacles; pumping them full of helium, helping them ascend high into the air to everyone’s delight. Then the critic sees them, declares its value (or lack thereof) and pulls out a pellet gun, laying waste to the creation and trying to send it crashing back to Earth. At best we can point at the balloon like other onlookers and declare, “Isn’t it marvelous.” However, for the most part it involves unleashing pot shots at these behemoths, even if they’re sparingly taken.
I kind of felt this way watching the new alien first-contact thriller “Arrival.” I’ve spent a big chunk of 2016 moaning at great length about the horrible state of cinema; crying foul about unoriginal reboots, unnecessary sequels and idiotic blockbusters plaguing multiplexes. So when Hollywood rolls out something marginally original and intentionally cerebral I should be happy, right? “Arrival” tries very hard to be a more scientifically accurate and realistic depiction of a close encounter. However, its attempts at being a more intellectual movie also prevent it from being any fun.
We are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a language expert somewhat detached from the rest of the world. Her human interactions are bare minimum, but audiences learn just a little about Louise before aliens decide to knock on Earth’s door. Unfortunately, they’re not familiar with the local vernacular, so America’s government decides this particular problem can only be solved by a cunning linguist: Louise.
Louise is whisked off to rural Montana and teamed up with a nice, nerdy scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). They begin the regimented process of learning to communicate with some alien creatures that look like walking squids. Audiences never really get a good look at them. Most of the time they’re draped in a smoky ether—it looks like the roadie in charge of the fog machine at a Mötley Crüe concert was too high to remember to shut the damn thing off. The first steps in Louise’s process are clunky. How does one communicate with a being that doesn’t understand or speak human language? They try to move from oral language to written, which slowly begins to give them a window into the purpose for this alien visit. Did I say “slowly”? I need a word that describes inaction to the point of ludicrousness. A word for stagnation. Something to describe the painstaking crawl of watching a snail cross a flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
The only piece of tension in “Arrival” stems from the fact that there are not one, but 12 of these alien ships, each trying to make contact with another country. Some of them are allies. Some of them are enemies. Everyone wants to be the first to crack the code. Louise is under constant pressure from military and government stereotypes which typically fill a movie like this. So instead of helping Louise, they’re constantly blurting out the kind of dialogue usually reserved for “Terminator” and “Mission: Impossible” movies.
I didn’t hate “Arrival,” but I was baffled by it. It felt so derivative: like the bastard love child of Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” By all logic “Arrival” should be a movie I enjoy, but it’s such a joyless romp. There’s no sense of wonder. The tension is so stereotypically manufactured it almost felt comical. Even when the film’s very clever third act kicks in it still struggles to break free from an extremely limited emotional palette.
“Arrival” is under-directed and under-acted to a fault. It’s tough because I wish there were more movies like “Arrival,” but ones capable of being both smart and entertaining. “Arrival” is just too dry for me to wholeheartedly recommend. It’s like a corn husk cooked by a flamethrower and served on the taint of an octogenarian. There might be some who enjoy this smart, slow, dimly lit endeavor. Personally, me and my pellet gun were hoping for something a little more lively.