Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
“Arrival” follows in the footsteps of last year’s “The Martian” and 2013’s “Gravity” of a genre film that is also a serious awards contender, and Denis Villeneuve hopes to capitalize on that trend. “Arrival” comes off the heels of his well received, but relatively unsuccessful at grabbing any awards 2015 film “Sicario”. Moving to a more awards friendly November release date and recruiting perennial Oscar contender Amy Adams may have been the extra bump that he needed to push his chances over the top.
“Arrival” focuses on just that, the arrival to Earth of alien life in the form of giant pod-shaped vessels. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one of the foremost linguists in the United States who is enrolled by the government to help interpret the language of the aliens. She’s joined by physicist Ian Donnelly, Jeremy Renner, in her attempt to communicate and learn from seven legged aliens dubbed heptapods. They spend weeks working under Colonel Weber, Forest Whitaker, while other countries do so in parallel with their respective invasions.
Like most successful science fiction, “Arrival” allows its focus to wander beyond just the plot proper. The film also dives into the pollical chaos caused by the arrival as different countries attempt to communicate with their respective pods. Each balances the rulers’ unique temperament eventually leading into the inevitable brink of war as communications between nations break down. Juxtaposed between both the face to face dealings with the heptapods and the political upheaval are Louise’s own demons. She’s haunted by tragedy involving her daughter, and the stress of her mission greatly exasperates these feelings. When she can manage to sleep, she dreams in a mix of those memories and the heptapods showing how deeply the job has permeated her psyche.
As always, Adams delivers a stunning performance. She asserts herself as both a strong dedicated expert in her field while still maintaining a level of humanity as she wears down from over work and struggles with her own personal problems. The film is clearly her meant to be her vehicle as Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker’s characters serve very little purpose outside that of catalyst for Adams. This fact does highlight a weakness of the film; in the second half of the film, Ian’s character changes significantly. He becomes more socially aware and develops a strong connection to Banks, without any insight into how it happened. It just seems like the writers decided and Dr. Banks needed someone to lean on to continue her arc so they decided it was time for Ian to suddenly be able to provide that.
And this leads to my one real gripe with the film. Despite Adams being a brilliant mind and effective savior of humanity, I have significant reservations towards the film from a feminist standpoint. Dr. Louise Banks is a brilliant mind with a rewarding career and significant accolades, and yet she’s portrayed as incomplete until her maternal needs can be fulfilled. I understand that the maternal instinct is a valid motivation for many people, but portraying one of the few women in the operation as having this apparent weakness feels reductive. Even more egregious than the overwhelming maternal motivation, is the completely out of nowhere romantic attraction between Louise and Ian. These two urges combine to dampen the powerful impact Louise Banks could have as a strong woman as she reverts to traditional female rolls.
“Arrival” boasts a strong cinematic foundation with beautiful CG and cinematography creating an immersive world. An innovative story and impressive lead performance by Amy Adams bolster the film to one of the best of the year. A weak feminist story is disappointing, but does not detract much from the overall enjoyment of the mil.