[Sort-of-spoiler on the second page]
Smart, serious, entertaining movies are in such short supply that when you see one of them, there’s a tendency to proclaim it a film classic. Hell or High Water, for instance — top-notch crime flick, really enjoyed it, not knocking it at all. But Hollywood used to make five to ten films that good every year. The movie looks even better than it is surrounded by the rest of the empty crap that’s out there. As I’ve said before, it’s not that Hollywood doesn’t make smart movies and it’s not that it doesn’t make movies that are fun to watch anymore. The industry just seems to have lost the knack for putting those traits together in one film the way they used to. That’s something that happens to an art form as it ages: the quality stuff and the entertaining stuff become different stuff instead of the same stuff.
All of which is to say that the sci-fi film Arrival has plenty to recommend it and it’s very smart and well-done, but it’s nowhere near as great as some of the critics say it is.
The story follows a linguist (played by Amy Adams) who is enlisted by the government to try to communicate with aliens who have just arrived on earth.
The thing is full of talent. Denis Villeneuve is an incredibly promising director and I’d much rather see him over-praised than under-. I thought Prisoners was tough and terrific. And Sicario would have been a crime classic if it had had a believable male instead of an unbelievable female lead in it. Amy Adams has become one of my and everybody’s favorite actresses. And Jeremy Renner is remarkably plausible in both action-man and thinking man roles.
But the movie is almost aggressively unimaginative. The aliens look like something out of H.G. Wells. The sets are monotonous. The beats and twists are played out so subtly that you hardly know they’re happening. And Adams is made to dress like such a shlump you never get to enjoy how beautiful she is. (And being beautiful is part of a lead actress’s job — just saying.) It feels as if the filmmakers don’t want to stoop to entertaining us, as if they fear that would damage their seriousness cred.
Most importantly, there is only one deep human relationship in the film, between a mother and her child. Every other relationship is based around work and is devoid of romance, complexity or interest. The plot points alone are meant to carry us through the story.
At the end of the film, I thought about another intelligent genre movie, and one of my favorites, The Sixth Sense. The difference is, even after you know the surprise ending, The Sixth Sense remains a powerful human drama, very entertaining to re-watch. The story of a psychiatrist treating a boy who sees ghosts is just a good story in and of itself. The characters’ journeys are all worth following, even after you know where the boo scares are and what the big reveal is.
Not so here. Hard to imagine watching this again. It’s terribly slow in the middle and, aside from the Big Cool Idea, which is admittedly big and cool, everything else — the plot, the drama, the characters — is shallow and small. It’s based on a short story and a short story is exactly what it feels like.
So yeah, go see Arrival for its smarts and its talent and for its Big Cool Idea. It’s a good movie; it really is. But don’t expect the greatness some critics are talking about. It will disappoint you there.