If you want to make an iconic science fiction film, go big. Just look at the masters. Stanley Kubrick reimagined space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with more than 200 pioneering special effects. James Cameron poured 10 years into Avatar (2009), spending $237 million before any promotion—the 12th most expensive film ever. And then there’s Steven Spielberg, a man who considers alien invasions as routine as rising action. It’s just the way the genre works.
Not so in Arrival.
Made for less than $50 million, Arrival chooses intimacy over excess. Where other films zoom out, Arrival zooms in, keeping its focus squarely on a few key characters. On the whole, it’s the right choice, a decision that makes the film more memorable, more important and more successful. But with this intimacy comes a few problems, some bigger than others.
TheCroakingFrog says: See It
What Hopped: beautiful depiction of language, intimacy over excess, soft-focus cinematography
What Croaked: two-dimensional male lead, an avalanche of good—but distracting—questions brought on by the final reveal
See It Now: see ASAP
See It: see if you have time
Skip It: see at your own risk
Forget It: avoid at all costs
*Spoilers from this point forward*
To his credit, director Denis Villeneuve makes his intentions clear from the start. We see some sort of breaking news event—and a throng of students crowding around TVs—but Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) barely notices. The camera’s focus softens, the buzz from the crowd fading to the background, as Banks continues her deliberate, sleepwalk-like trudge to class. Is Banks depressed? Absent-minded? A cup of coffee behind schedule?
Regardless, Villeneuve has signaled where the camera will live. For the next two hours, we’ll be observing the world two feet behind Banks’ shoulder, not 10,000 feet up in the air. The effect is immediate, arresting and confident: the mark of a skilled filmmaker.
It’s no surprise seeing this sort of visual choice from Villeneuve, the man who directed 2015’s Sicario, a gorgeous, cinematically breathtaking film. There, as in Arrival, the director anchors most shots in the eyes of his female protagonist, a formula that brings a human closeness to each and every discovery.
What’s more, Sicario’s Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Arrival’s Banks share a similar cocktail of personality traits: raw smarts, self-doubt, a thirst for understanding why. Forget the kick-ass Xena warrior princess or lifeless “manic pixie dream girl.” Villeneuve’s women are better than these tropes, fully formed, intriguing in character and complicated in motive.
If only the same could be said of Arrival’s other lead. Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist tasked with understanding the aliens’ technology. In a paint-by-numbers intro, he rattles off a list of physics questions for the extra terrestrials. “How did they get here? What is their spacecraft made from? Are they capable of faster-than-light travel?” Banks’ response: “How about we just try to talk to them first?”* Zing! It turns out Donnelly isn’t here to challenge our assumptions about the natural world or help us consider alternative perspectives. He’s a plot device, a sounding board, the dialogue equivalent of a “yin” to Banks’ “yang.”
I’ll admit I braced myself for an hour of linguist-v-physicist arguments, complete with banging on desks and waving of hands. “But we need to know how they move, dammit, not just what they’re saying!!” In fact, we get little more of anything. Renner’s Donnelly fades rapidly, devolving from friendly adversary to dutiful sidekick, from mild-mannered encourager to Ken Doll love interest. It’s bizarro Hollywood: a three-dimensional woman next to a flat, forgettable man. I guess it’s better than the all-too-common reverse.
In my mind, this imbalance comes as a consequence of the film’s intimacy. We’re so focused on Banks—her memories, her fears, her bewilderment—we simply don’t have time to draw out Donnelly as a fully realized foil. To be clear, I don’t think Renner makes the movie any worse. He just doesn’t make it better.
Instead, what makes Arrival stand out is its respect for language, its belief in the beauty of day-to-day communication. The alien language in Arrival is both elegant and underwhelming, at once richly complex and no big deal. Watching Banks struggle to understand her extra terrestrial visitors—an endeavor filled with frustration, missed connections, and courageous acts of vulnerability—has a mesmerizing quality that transcends special effects and space battles. Who hasn’t grieved over a miscommunication? Who’s never struggled with the right words for an apology? Is there anyone who hasn’t wondered what exactly an ex, old friend or family member was really trying to say? Banks’ journey is intensely, uncompromisingly human, intergalactic in scope, but as personal as a quiet conversation with your spouse.
In the film, this communication metaphor extends to the wider world, as the globe’s various nations must learn to work together, to trust in collaboration over aggression, diplomacy over war. I thought this particular message was generally good, but perhaps a bit too easy. Part of me wanted more nuance: maybe a rogue attack from a pocket of less peaceful aliens, or a single human nation ultimately refusing to resort to peace. But political messages in film can lose power when they’re too watered down, when too many caveats and exceptions tip toe into the screenplay. Here, I don’t know what the right solution is. I just know I found the personal themes much more powerful than the political ones.
That said, I’m more confident in one last criticism. In a late twist, we discover that Banks’ various “memories” of motherhood are in fact visions from the future. Upon learning the alien language, she comes to understand the world outside of time. She can see her whole life at once, before she has lived it. In the space of minutes, we learn about several of Banks’ decisions. She will begin a romantic relationship with Donnelly. They will have a child together. All the while, she will know the child will eventually die of a rare disease. Finally, Donnelly will leave Banks out of frustration, furious that she knew the child would die before they conceived her.
The surprise does work, and the ensuing questions are admittedly powerful. Is the temporary joy of a child worth it, even if you know she will die an early death? Would you change your life if you knew exactly how it would unfold? How do we, as humans, respond to tragedy, and what separates an optimist from a pessimist, a dreamy disposition from a pragmatic worldview?
Even if these are excellent, thought-provoking questions, they struck me as part-intriguing, part-distracting. How, exactly, does all of this new information connect with the film that came before it? Where are the threads that tie the questions of motherhood and loss to those of communication and diplomacy?
I’m not asking for Arrival to be neat and tidy, with no rough edges or lingering complications. But I do prefer films with a certain narrative and thematic coherence, something I believe Arrival lacks in its final moments. It’s another casualty of the film’s fierce intimacy, an example of a movie so focused on its central character’s journey that it sacrifices the bigger picture, the overriding message.
I’ll remember Arrival for its courageous choices: to skip the outer space explosions and focus on the intimacy of conversation, to reimagine aliens as a race seeking connection, not initiating combat. I’ll forget about Jeremy Renner, and I’ll remain puzzled by the avalanche of extra questions brought on by the movie’s final reveal. Was it perfect? Not even close. But then again, conversation, connection and understanding rarely ever are.
*Paraphrased. Not a word-for-word transcription. I'll update when I get access to the final script.