ARRIVAL * 1 / 2
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
The pseudo-profundo films of Denis Villeneuve throb with gloomy, sinister images and what Alvy Singer once described as “total heaviosity.” I can’t stand them. Prisoners and Sicario tarted up their junky, airport paperback plotting with ponderous, meditative baloney that somehow hornswoggled otherwise intelligent people into taking these silly movies quite seriously.
His latest, the rapturously overpraised Arrival, is even worse because it’s made up almost entirely of borrowed parts that don’t fit together. Working from a novella by Ted Chiang, Eric Heisserer’s screenplay swipes the premise of The Day The Earth Stood Still, then adds a little bit of The Martian plus the worst parts of Gravity and Interstellar before finally going all Tree Of Life in a forehead-smacking finale.
Kicking off to the tune of Max Richter’s “On The Nature Of Daylight” (the classical equivalent of “Bad To The Bone” or “Born To Be Wild” as far as hacky, overplayed music cues go) Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor summoned to help try and translate when twelve enormous, unidentified hovering objects suddenly appear one morning over a dozen different countries. Since this is a Hollywood movie in 2016, Adams also has to be mourning the death of her young daughter, because if the success of Gravity taught us anything it’s that science-fiction isn’t compelling enough on its own and we need to throw some self-help therapy sessions in with all the spaceship stuff.
Adams is teamed with a mathematician played by Jeremy Renner, whose greatest gift as an actor I’m beginning to think is his uncanny ability to seem miscast in a wide variety of roles. They’re working for some grumbly, angry military guys played by Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, which threw me off a bit because Whitaker is doing such a bizarre, unexplainable accent that for a while I thought he might be one of the aliens. The better parts of the film involve Adams and Renner attempting to parse our visitors’ ink-squiggle shorthand, ginning suspense out of translation troubles, as when the word “weapon” gets swapped with “tool.” (This is the kind of movie that makes you want to go home and read the book it was based on.)
Naturally, none of these hostile, bickering countries want to share what they’re learning about the gargantuan eggplant emoji in their skies, which of course almost leads to the end of the world. Arrival makes an impassioned plea for the necessity of global cooperation while quite hilariously never straying from the perspective of its two white, American movie stars. This is a film about a worldwide crisis that can’t be arsed to leave Montana.
Spoiler etiquette precludes much further discussion, save perhaps that the heavily telegraphed twist struck this reviewer as barmy nonsense. (It’s something my friend, the great critic Ali Arikan would call “a wank.”) But it gives Villeneuve an excuse to crank the Richter music again, ramp up the cross-cutting and indulge in some terrible Terrence Malick karaoke as Adams recites pretentious narration while a child runs through fields of grass. As far as spawning soulless aesthetic imitators goes, I think it’s now safe to say that The Tree Of Life has done more damage to the American cinema than anything since Pulp Fiction.