Thursday, April 5, 2018

In short: Arrival (2016)

Warning: A minor degree of spoilers is inevitable in this case

Usually, I have little trouble to entangle a movie adaptation from a superior more thoughtful source and take it for what it is. No such luck for me with Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. It’s too bad too, for I suspect if I could, I would find a little bit more to like about the film at hand.

Part of this difficulty certainly lies in the fact that the film’s first half or so is a more than decent movie version of the story, given a glossy Hollywood sheen through impressive camera work, special effects that recommend themselves by never pointing to themselves, and expectedly good acting by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Adams’s Louise’s first visit to the alien spaceship is a fantastic moment that demonstrates the wonder, the awe and the terror of an encounter with the utterly alien. Alas, the aliens become increasingly less alien the longer the film goes on and the further it moves away from Chiang’s novella. In the end, the film’s aliens are just another band of outer space big daddies who have come to wag their fingers at humanity and unify it by force instead of the much more ambiguous and truly alien aliens of the novella to whom we and our ways are as alien as they are to us.

Of course, if the film did otherwise, we couldn’t have a last half hour mostly consisting of lame, clichéd ticking clock scenarios and been there, done that plot events. Keeping with this dumbing down, Villeneuve (or Eric Heisserer’s script) also turns the story’s central philosophical conceit into a plot-practical way to see into the future that is infuriating in its simple-mindedness, falling into the usual trap of expecting a film to play well to the dumbest audience member a Hollywood filmmaker can imagine.

All this does add up to the perfectly respectable kind of science fiction film that can play well with the Academy Awards audience (see also the loathsome Gravity), the sort of film that pretends to be deep and emotional but mostly makes empty gestures to hide how cynically manipulative it is. Which is in general what the big mainstream film awards still prefer from their films, the last bunch of Academy Awards nominees and winners notwithstanding.

Now, I’m not at all against spectacle with a hint of heart as my love for the output of Marvel Studios should prove, but the way Arrival handles these things really sticks in my craw, the series of pretentious gestures that never become anything more than gestures that is the final act, hiding emptiness behind the still fantastic effects and production design and an increasingly schmaltzy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who could do so much better), adding up to very little but presented with the grandest gestures possible.

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