Let me explain …
Arrival tells the story of expert linguist Louise Banks (played with the usual big screen charm by Amy Adams). When twelve alien ships land at different locations about the globe, Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are conscripted into military service as their expertise makes them perfect candidates to decipher not only how to communicate with a species that speaks in symbols but also what their intent may mean for our entire planet. As societies act out in panic, this elite team races against time to keep mankind from raising arms against an enemy it has little chance of understanding.
Performances are solid, but I thought Arrival did suffer a bit in the first half due to its lethargic pacing: as I’ve warned friends and family going in to see the flick, there’s an awful lot of set-up necessary to understand all of what’s happening culturally and scientifically; and – without spoiling too much of it – if you’re watching and listening closely then you might just see the feature’s last act development (i.e. plot twist) coming very early on. (I know that I did). Sometimes, that’s the danger of front-loading your tale with too many ideas: by requiring the audience to “keep up,” you inadvertently point them in a direction a script of slightly lesser virtue wouldn’t have, and you end up doing your story a narrative disservice. It’s a tricky balance, but to each his own as to whether you see the twist coming.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the production details are very good as well. Visually, Arrival brilliantly juxtaposes an almost subterranean (earthy) alien atmosphere against Earth’s utilitarian approach to managing science and crisis; you practically can’t resist cheering Banks’ realization to strip off the biohazard suit and show the aliens that we’re still a race of individuals underneath all of that look-alike protective garb. (It’s arguably one of the highlights of the film.)
Still, Arrival kinda/sorta cheapens its smart storytelling in two somewhat typical Hollywood ways.
Second (and others may disagree with me on this point), Arrival sacrifices all the rules it rather ‘smartly’ established when it’s revealed in the last reel that the aliens apparently understood Earth speech (i.e. English) after all! Without revealing too much, circumstances require that mankind act (and act quickly!) to save itself (a late-breaking plot development), so Banks is hauled up in a transport pod (another last act creation) only to learn that the aliens never needed symbols to communicate after all: either they’re understanding her speech (my impression) OR they’re communicating telepathically (another possibility though it’s never quite qualified but strongly implied).
Therefore, I stated in the opening of my review that I probably thought Arrival was ‘smart’ for differing reasons than most: it smartly uses all of the best techniques of the major motion picture to weave an adult alien invasion story – think of this as “Independence Day for the CBS 60 Minutes’ Crowd.” It takes a few clever ideas and presents them in ways that heighten the creative aspect … but, all-in-all, I’d stop short of calling it a ‘smart’ film because in some aspects it does so by narrative trickery. In short, Arrival is one of these films wherein it’s honestly difficult to discuss all elements of it without spoiling it for audiences, so I’m hesitant to say more than that for fear that I would take away some of its magic.
I’ve been no big fan of Jeremy Renner’s work, and his part here despite being advertised as central could have been handled by anyone; his character is largely inconsequential to the action, and it’s even given a postscript existence some of us wouldn’t find all that admirable anyway. Despite her inability to express any range whatsoever, Adams continues to impress audiences and win accolades by showing up, appearing doe-eyed, and whispering lines while captured in close-up. It helps to have an attractive centerpiece as this is clearly her picture, but I wish make-up could’ve made her look tired when she claimed to be legitimately exhausted. (Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I’m only being honest here, peeps.)
I will say this: Arrival impresses in much the same way recent SciFi entries like District 9, Upstream Color, and Ex Machina have, the dirty little secret being these stories always say so much more about ourselves (as a race, as a culture, etc.) than they ever do about the involved aliens, consciousness, and robots. It’s for precisely those sentiments that I’ve long argued that the first Star Trek film from 1979 deserves a second look after suffering so much disdain and derision from fandom: way back then, even the Gene Roddenberry franchise knew that “the human adventure” was always going to be more earthbound than it ever was intergalactic. Arrival brings Science Fiction to our doorstep and forces us to ask ‘what are you going to do about it’ in a way that’s sometimes thoughtful, introspective, and intelligent ... but sometimes not.