Denis Villeneuve has a pacing problem. The last act of the otherwise excellent Sicario (2015) slowed to a crawl; Prisoners (2013) dragged; and now Arrival, his dour, monotonal emo-sci-fi extravaganza, starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to talk to the aliens, spends its long second act in a kind of suspended animation almost guaranteed to bring sleep to the weary. It’s laborious.
The film also feels deeply, cloyingly influenced by others. It’s the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Contact meets Inception / Interstellar meets The Tree of Life. Scenes of Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and her daughter seem directly ripped from the latter, while Nolan’s influence is not just apparent but breathtakingly obvious – as though Villeneuve wanted to be Nolan and was trying to pull off some weird con by making a Nolan movie.
Aliens have arrived at twelve locations around the world; they’re hovering in big ships, and we the people of earth don’t know what to do. The US Army enlists Louise to try to talk to them. She tries and tries, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. But their language is complicated, it’s taking too much time, and, meanwhile, the Chinese want to nuke ‘em.
It may sound exciting but it’s not. For the most part, it grinds on in scenes that are repetitious not only in content but visually, the drab overcast Montana skies combining with the monotonous hues of an army camp to induce a sense of overwhelming Sunday afternoon melancholy. Forest Whitaker stands around and spits out quiet, intense exposition as an army Colonel, while Michael Stuhlbarg – bless him! – provides the film’s only lightness and wit as a CIA Agent along for the language lessons.
Like Interstellar, the film aims to be deeply emotionally compelling, but, while the complicated story structure definitely pays off as a sci-fi concept, it tries too hard to make you cry to actually make you cry. I appreciated the clever gimmickry of the conclusion and was glad the credits rolled.