The world of "Arrival," wherein a tense and frightened planet Earth sits helpless in the face of the unknown, isn't too far removed from the one we're living in this week or the world we'll be living in for the next four miserable years. "Sicario" director Denis Villeneuve's latest is a markedly grounded sci-fi yarn that finds genius linguistics professor Louise Brooks (Amy Adams) tasked by the government with establishing communication with a group of mysterious aliens who have no discernable language.
What's immediately kind of striking about "Arrival" is how deliberately low energy the whole thing feels. There aren't any big action sequences and even the film's use of digital effects to portray the film's faceless "Heptapod" visitors or their eerie convex ships feels extremely muted. It's appropriate that the fantastical elements of "Arrival" seem almost mundane—as if floating black vessels could suddenly appear above us any day now—given the specifically repetitive nature of the movie's plot.
Every 18 hours, Louise and her government assigned physicist/love interest Ian (Jeremy Renner) attempt in vain to reach the pair of interstellar AirBnBers floating above the ground. The film's suspense doesn't lie in big schemes of alien conquest or a portal that threatens to destroy New York, but the looming threat of no-frills human paranoia and violence. The greatest enemy humanity faces here is, unsurprisingly, itself.
Although "Arrival" boasts a strong ensemble cast that includes Forest Whitaker and Michael "I was in 'Doctor Strange' too" Stuhlbarg, everyone aside from Adams' Louise feels oddly unwritten and perfunctory. Characters in the film exist as means to an end, getting us from one scene to the next, rather than people in their own right. Renner gives the kind of purely cursory performance we've come to expect from him nearly a decade out from "The Hurt Locker," exchanging dialogue and delivering quips with the exhausted charm of a boozing community college English professor.
It's only Louise that feels like a real person, humanized by the loss and emptiness she feels in the face of her preteen daughter's death. Louise's haunting loneliness is expressed beautifully in the film, not just in Adams' performance but in Bradford Young's calculatingly cold and distant cinematography. The grief Louise feels encapsulates whole environments, from her sterile wood-and-glass lakefront home to the desolate and fog-covered Montana field that the Heptapods have taken residence above.
"Arrival" is the kind of movie that lives and dies on its script and what we get here is, well, frustrating. Without veering too hard into spoiler territory, screenwriter Eric Heisserer deserves real kudos for how he and Villenueve consciously play on audience expectations with a major plot twist at the center of the film, and for an ending that could be characterized as ambitiously bleak. But at the same time, "Arrival" doesn't give us a payoff as much as it kind of runs out of time and wraps things up before the credits roll. Clocking in at just under two hours, it's a lean picture that's also somewhat slight—a worthwhile and appropriate escape from Planet Trump for those of us who need it right now.
"Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve, is now playing.