arrival

Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

Stylist for hire. Stylist for hire. Denis Villeneuve is a stylist for hire on Arrival. He assembles a wonderful crew and they all do great work. Joe Walker’s editing is always assured, never flashy. Bradford Young’s photography is phenomenal. Arrival’s got a great color palette. Bored with its beauty or some such aesthetic. Excellent music from Jóhann Jóhannsson, even if it sounds a lot like Michael Nyman’s Wonderland score at times. And great production design from Patrice Vermette.

It’s a shame all this great technical work is on a cheap, manipulative narrative. Eric Heisserer’s got no understanding of narrative pacing, so he needs someone like Villeneuve who can assign tonal shifts to the narrative to move things along. I mean, there’s expository narration in Arrival because it’s got a somewhat lengthy present action for an alien encounter movie and a lot of science the film doesn’t want to make up in detail for the viewer. So, even with expository narration, Heisserer can’t make this thing move. It’s a boulder Villeneuve’s got to get going, then keep going. The style gets it through. The technical skill gets it through.

Until there’s a big reveal and the script gets worse. Arrival isn’t cheap and manipulative in terms of its plotting–actually, if the script worked, the plot would be fine–Heisserer’s cheap and manipulative in the detail, in the contrived events, in the lack of ambition or thoughtfulness. There are big logic wholes and not just because the film’s structured to hide the reveal. And that hide is an exceptionally manipulative–or potentially exceptionally manipulative–device on its own.

Arrival should offer Amy Adams an amazing role. It doesn’t. Worse, Villeneuve doesn’t seem to care. He’s concentrating on the filmmaking, not his actors’ performances. You can’t blame him–the actors have that script dragging them down, all Villeneuve has to do is expertly render it. Adams is fine. She’s good. She’s not great. It’s not a great role. It should be a great role and it isn’t.

Jeremy Renner practically deserves an “and” credit. He’s present but not active. Heisserer and Villeneuve ignore him. The second half’s pacing is wonky and, even though Renner gets the stop narration updating the ground situation, he doesn’t have much of a place in it. He needs a very big place in it given the twist and the hide. Villeneuve needed to deliver here with his two lead and he doesn’t.

Forest Whitaker’s awesome as the army guy who recruits Renner and Adams to talk to aliens. Oh, right; Arrival is about aliens coming to Earth. Whitaker can chew some scenery. It’s kind of a crap part given he doesn’t get any character development, even though its sort of promised. I can’t even get into how cheap Heisserer gets with the end of the second act events. If it weren’t for Villeneuve, they’d be big enough to jar you out.

Arrival is a big disappointment. Not just because of the talented people working on it, but because it’s a fine plot with a bad script and Villeneuve tries to mundanely stylize away that badness.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Joe Walker; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, David Linde, and Aaron Ryder; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Amy Adams (Louise), Jeremy Renner (Ian), Michael Stuhlbarg (Halpern), Tzi Ma (Shang), and Forest Whitaker (Weber).


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