“Been There, Done That” is the best way to describe the “extra-terrestrials come to Earth” genre. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Sicario”) attempts to put a new spin on it with “Arrival”. This is a tough movie to describe in detail - largely because, on the surface, there isn’t much to describe.
12 mysterious shell-shaped objects show-up on our planet, appearing at various locations around the globe, including one in a field in Montana. When the military discovers that alien life is inside, they bring in linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks to assist in trying to communicate with these creatures and understand their language.
Amy Adams plays Banks - and this is far from the best or showiest role of her career. Outside of delivering some basic dialogue now and again, Adams mostly gets to stare a lot - at computer monitors, the aliens and often, just into space. She does have a couple of showcase scenes - interacting with her daughter - but that’s it.
The true significance of those scenes isn’t revealed until a major twist in the final 10 minutes. Once that comes, you’ll likely question what the point of “Arrival” really is. Not all of it makes total sense, and frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of movies in which everything relies on one, surprise revelation. But I do give Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who adapted the film from a story by Ted Chiang) a lot of credit for pulling-off the impressive surprise that changes everything you thought you knew up to that point.
But, as much as I like the ending, the beginning and middle of “Arrival” are a slow go. The story takes quite a while to develop any pace, ultimately settling on a very basic rhythm. Each scene feels drawn-out, with a cast hanging over it. And there’s very little “mystery” when it comes to the aliens and their purpose for coming to Earth. You just find yourself wishing someone or some creature would do something!
Forest Whitaker plays the Colonel in charge of the military side of the invasion. And Jeremy Renner (who co-starred with Adams in “American Hustle”) plays scientist Ian Donnelly, who partners with Banks in trying to develop a language for the two, seven-finger “hands” that serve as the aliens. Midway through, he randomly does a three-minute voice-over narration explaining events that happen over an elapsed period of time.
Some people will really enjoy this film, and be eager to watch it again to try to piece it together. But, while the payoff works, the first 90% of “Arrival” isn’t strong enough to justify a second viewing. And for those thinking about seeing it once, sitting through an hour and 40 minutes to get to the payoff may not be worth it.