Timey-wimey. This now-infamous phrase was begat on Doctor Who, and it is what came to me as I finished Arrival, a well-crafted but slightly puzzling film. It's a very good film, well-acted, well-directed, keeping things steady if a bit slow. However, because of timey-wimey, I can't embrace the film as much as I'd like to.
For the uninitiated, 'timey-wimey' is the explanation given as to how one event can essentially cancel out another event happening theoretically at the same time. It's an easy way to reset events, to bring back characters believed dead back to life without actually having to go back in time to save them from death, and to cover up continuity errors. Under the reign of Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat, 'timey-wimey' explained away all those pesky continuity errors between Episode A and Episode D and bring back dead characters. He does this with Sherlock too, and many fans and critics (such as The Nerdist's Kyle Anderson), lavish praise on him for this. I find the whole 'timey-wimey' thing ridiculous, but now I digress.
I give all that information out though because Arrival, in its much more clever and elegant way, gives us a variation of 'timey-wimey', which is one reason I am marking it down a bit. It's hardly a terrible film as I've said, but still, that 'timey-wimey'...
Linguist expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been brought in to help try and help translate the strange language of aliens that have placed their ships in 12 random locations around the world (the ship closest to her is in Montana). Joining her is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), both under the watchful and somewhat crabby eye of Colonel Walker (Forrest Whitaker). The various locations around the world are attempting to work together, but there is still suspicion, fear, and terror among humanity as to the arrival of the new beings (news reports seen by those quarantined in Montana talk of riots, looting, forced curfews and chaos).
Every 18 hours the ship opens, and they go to meet the new beings. Slowly, Louise and Ian start figuring things out when it comes to the two aliens, whom they nickname Abbott and Costello. They manage to make progress, but soon more fear and paranoia come when Louise translates something the aliens write (their communication method coming in terms of symbols as opposed to sound): "Offer Weapon".
The Chinese, working on their own, translate things as "Use Weapon", and this creates a total state of panic among world leaders and military. The Chinese in particular are going full-on war and go into radio silence. Soon, the Russians, the Ethiopians and others are following their suit. Louise and Ian desperately want time to work out a better translation, but things are spinning out of control. Rogue members of the U.S. military attempt an attack on the craft while Ian and Louise are aboard.
Things look hopeless until Louise ventures out once more, and this time the hovering ship sends a smaller craft to get her. There, she meets Costello and is able to communicate with him/her (Abbott, she's informed, is dying). Here, now, at last, Louise learns what they are there for, and it involves bending the rules of time itself.
She now must stop the paranoid, fearful world leaders, particularly Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) from firing on the spaceships.
All this is intercut with scenes from Louise's own life, which involve a daughter that dies of cancer. To say more would be to give too much away.
Arrival is a very deliberately paced film, never rushing or skimping on how time-consuming the translations or the fear among humanity would be. That, I suspect, may test some viewers patience, as the film feels longer than its two-hour running time. The big twist involving Louise's daughter Hannah might also test people. With regards to it, frankly I don't think it was a big surprise. Truth be told, part of me kept expecting it, and the fact that Arrival involves the blending of past, present and future shows that Eric Heisserer's adaptation of the short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life, is not cheating the audience. It is written and edited in such a way that the twist does not come out of nowhere or deliberately misleads audiences.
Still, I found it all a bit too pat, too easy a way to get out of a harrowing situation. It wasn't unexpected, it wasn't illogical, but something still didn't sit right with me on that matter.
However, Arrival handles the scenario extremely well, never being sensationalistic or unrealistic with the concept of aliens landing on Earth. It presents it in a mix of elegance and almost documentary-type, where the events are shown as plausible. That is one of the great achievements of director Denis Villeneuve.
The other is in guiding his cast to give among their best work. Amy Adams gives yet another brilliant performance, and having seen Arrival after the Academy Awards, I can see why so many were astonished that she failed to get a Best Actress nomination.
From what I see, obviously the WRONG redhead was nominated (and won), but again I digress.
Adams' performance is simply extraordinary: she plays the cool professional and a very haunted woman. She has survivor's grief, the joys of motherhood, the agony of loss, the hope for a good future, as well as having to keep going on with her life. Amy Adams always keeps things professional when she's with others, but when she's alone, she is vulnerable to what haunts her, even if her dreams and memories blend into each other.
Renner, among my favorites when not attempting to be shoved into action roles, is her equal as the strong and more down-home Ian, professional but with some humor to him.
Without going too much into things, Arrival is among the most intelligent science-fiction films to come down in a long time. It asks questions about fate, about whether we would alter the future/past even if and when we knew it. It makes one think about whether fear of the unknown would make one attempt to understand it or destroy it. Again, part of that 'timey-wimey' business simply didn't sit well with me, and at one point we had Renner's voice-over to speed things up (not being a fan of voice-overs, again not something I was thrilled by).
That being said, Arrival is a strong film, perhaps a bit slow for some, one that treats its premise seriously, with excellent performances.