The Arrival is a slow burn on a really long wick. It’s not that the movie has a long run-time, it just stretches out its scenes and takes its time telling the story to the point that audiences will probably yawn once or twice even if they’re interested. With that said, there will come a moment in the last fifteen minutes of so when the film turns much of what it presented on its head and introduces a new mechanic into the story that changes how the audience understands what they’ve just watched. It’s a decent twist that will have moviegoers thinking as they leave the theater, but it’s very disappointing that the film had to cheat to pull it off.
The film focuses on expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and details two life changing events that she experiences. First, the birth and eventual loss of her child as a teenager. Second, the arrival of extra-terrestrials. The majority of the film covers the latter. When the aliens arrive, they land in twelve different areas around the world. In the United States, they land in Montana, and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is dispatched to bring Loise to the site so that she can translate the aliens’ language. She’s paired with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a large staff of researchers and soldiers to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, other teams around the world are also working to translate the alien language and not everyone has the same interpretation. When another nation senses a threat, they begin taking military action against the visitors, effectively creating a countdown timer for Louise to stop all-out war.
From its languid presentation and drawn out procedural scenes, The Arrival feels less like a big Hollywood movie and more like an intimate independent film. It takes a while for the film to really get going, especially with its seemingly unrelated introduction showcasing Louise’s life with her daughter. And even when Louise is finally doing the job the military picked her for, a lot of time is spent world-building, showing viewers details about the forward operating base next to the alien craft, like the on-site doctor who explains the injections that Louise is receiving. These extraneous moments aren’t necessarily unwanted, but they do extend the movie unnecessarily, which seems to be a creative goal for the film. For instance, it takes several sessions before there’s any kind of breakthrough moment. While that’s typically fine for a movie that doesn’t want to rush the story, there is a wearisome repetition in how this is presented, forcing audiences to watch everyone get suited up over and over again. This lasting attention to detail can be exhausting for audiences that weren’t expecting it.
On the other hand, the direction also made The Arrival feel more believable because of its attention to the cinematically minute. In other “alien visitor” films, the temptation would be to whip the camera around the planet to see expected events, like press conferences, military mobilization, and civil unrest. And while audiences do get to see that here to an extent, it’s presented in a much more ordinary way to the characters on-screen; they get it through the radio, television, and the internet. Certainly, at times this method makes the film seem cheap, telling us what’s happening, rather than showing us, but it also adds an amount of authenticity that can’t be denied.
There are some political overtones that I normally wouldn’t bother calling out if it were not for the current climate of recent events. The US military gets a blackeye, which is par for the course for anything not directed by Michael Bay. Conservative talk radio also takes a hit as it foments doubt and urges a show of strength against the ostensibly peaceful visitors. Even China is cast as a villain, which is surprising since most films will do whatever it takes to get their films in the Chinese market. Still, these moments pass fairly quickly, and these villains are the most convenient given the constraints of the story.
The most intriguing part about The Arrival is its twist ending. Personally, I enjoy smart twists, especially ones that add extra or new meaning to events I just watched. In this film, however, while the twist is certainly interesting, it brings with it too many questions. Without spoiling anything, the main question I had after the film was, “If you had this power, then why did certain things happen the way they did?” The follow-up thought I had was that I totally would have spotted the twist earlier if the film had just dealt fairly with me. As it is, the movie strains credibility by purposefully misrepresenting what I’m seeing in order to make the twist ending work. Unfortunately, if you twist a story too far, then it will rip. The Arrival does that if you spend just a little time digesting the film, which is exactly what the movie wants you to do, ironically.