Sci-fi film ‘Arrival’ stays earthbound

When a POV shot of a grade school girl running across a grassy field filled the screen, I knew Arrival would thread its cosmic Weltschmerz through the suffering of a woman whose dead child is a badge of her professionalism. How a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) communicate with the inhabitants of pod-like spaceships that have descended on twelve cities forms the basis of Arrival. The director is Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director as allergic to levity as my cousin is to mussels.

The pod or “shell” in Montana draws the increasing alarm of the CIA and Army. Colonel Weber (a stolid Forest Whitaker) asks Louise Banks (Adams), who has top secret clearance from previous unspecified contract work, to join a special interpreting team. First she and Ian Donnelly (Renner) have to understand what these aliens are: shoe trees with seven arms that communicate by splooging an ink-like substance on the glass separating them from the humans who visit their ship. Most of Arrival consists of Louise and Ian scowling at these Rorschach blots while Weber and his CIA colleague fret about the intentions of China and Russia, which have withdrawn cooperation with other scientists around the world. Further study shows that the heptapods use a complex semantic code whereby changing or misinterpreting the smallest image changes the meaning. This ambiguity imbues a dispute over the heptapods meant to write “tool” (what Louise chooses to see) or “weapon” (what the Russians and Chinese see).

An inchoate medley of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the drool-caked metaphysics of imitation Terrence Malick, Arrival is nonetheless Villeneuve’s most realized film. It’s also the first film dependent on post-Election Day liberal malaise for its spooks. From the mentions of the stock market down two thousand points to the sense of impending global doom, Arrival could not have known that Donald J. Trump would occupy the White House in January 2017 but Villeneuve sure acts like it. Bradford Young’s soft greys and browns and use of light garnish a world in which humans cower in shadows.

The problem is, Arrival turns into bullshit. With Sicario, Prisoners and Enemy in his catalog, Villeneuve has turned a couple of good tricks: scenarios fraught with uncertainty dissipate from lack of commitment. In Sicario, he presented the both-sides-do-it conceitwith all the insight of a cynic at a bar who knows the real truth about Benghazi; the performances in Prisoners and professional cinematography went to shit the moment he realized the Death Wish solution was an easier way of holding the audience’s attention. Arrival‘s idea of deepening Amy Adams’ character is to saddle her with a child whose death triggers an important revelation. I’m tired of motherhood as a plot device, whether it’s in Aliens or Gravity. Motherhood is too primal, too routine insofar as billions of humans bear children, and not a prerequisite for self-realization. The way in which Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have adapted the original short story (which I haven’t read), however, requires a thick sauce of karmic twaddle poured over the movie; the violins on the soundtrack even sound like the wind chimes hung in a New Age bookstore. These notions stop Adams’ sturdy performance cold and makes Renner look redundant; he’s in the movie because these movies need male romantic interests for their strong female protagonists and because someone has to deliver “Wanna make a baby?” in voice-over.

Determinations like these convince me that high seriousness hobbles Villeneuve like a liver ailment. He doesn’t believe in genre — he believes in messages. My advice? Walk out of Arrival after the 80-minute mark.

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