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Why is it so dark in here?

In “Arrival,” Amy Adams plays a very quiet, professional linguist who is called in by Army colonel when a giant UFOs descends in remote Montana.  11 other UFOs have appeared in other places around the globe. The aliens seem interested in communication and interaction, but the humans are freaked, and on the edge of panic (because the first thing we want to do, when confronted with something we are unfamiliar with, is attack it.)  So Adams, with the help of Jeremy Renner (who seems to be no help at all) must learn the alien’s language, and how to communicate with it. This is no small task, as the aliens look like giant squid and talk like a lightrail train.

Doing so has unexpected consequences for Adams, and there’s a storytelling bait-and-switch in “Arrival” that feel more like a trick than a treat. Nonetheless, what works best in “Arrival” are the ideas; this is a sci fi think-piece on communication, particularly on what a tricky and confusing thing language is. I feel like that’s a subject worthy of exploration, but this movie leaves an awful lot on the table.

Director Denis Vileneuve, (whose movies almost always miss with me) really wants to capture the sort of wonder, and difficulty, of first contact that “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” did.  But it’s just so serious and somber, it becomes a bore. The actors aren’t allowed to display much range – almost every scene is shot in either an awed whisper or somber confusion.  And to make it worse, DP Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”) has decided to shoot scene after scene after freaking scene backlit, either by windows or the horizon, so that most of the time our characters are almost in silhouette. This is a decision I don’t understand at all.

A little wit, a little gallows humor, a little something would go a long way in “Arrival.”I found myself wishing for a character like Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” or Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park” or “Independence Day” – someone who could lighten things a bit, even as the world is on the verge of ending. While the general premise is entertaining and intriguing enough to mostly carry through all this, with charisma and gallows humor. Sure, the world is on the verge of destruction, from inside or without. But if we lose our sense of humor, we’ve forgotten what it means to be human.

I appreciate this kind of movie – I like thought-provoking sci fi, with a strong dose of the unknown and uncanny, that gives us an opportunity to reflect on what it is to be human. I went in to the movie theater expecting to love the movie, thinking it might be on my top 10 list at the end of the year.  I came out hoping there are better movies still on the way in the final month of 2016.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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