Complex and it works. Not quite the most complex of swiss-clock-storytelling, but definitely highly engineered. The story is complex and has a nice reveal and payoff, but it never quite reaches the complexity or emotional satisfaction of, for example, a Nolan film like Interstellar (which I think serves as a recent genre comparison).
Without knowing too much about the movie walking in, I was immediately drawn in by the premise: If aliens were to land, how would we make communication inroads? This leads us to the role of our protagonist - Amy Adams - who’s helped the government before but obviously not at this level of importance to humanity.
My suspension of disbelief was held pretty much intact, in what was a slow burn of a film. I love when directors take the time to live with the characters in the lead up to an intense moment: putting on the hazmat suit, riding in the pick up trucks to the ‘shell’, going up in the flat-bed riser into the belly of the shell. It’s these moments where Arrival is strongest - in the anticipation and the observation of a transformational event for all of humanity.
Amy Adams is brilliant. Renner is always fun.
Where the film stumbles just a bit is its reveal of the ‘weapon’ - that, by learning the language of the Heptapods, you can start to see time as a collection of moments rather than a linear progression. Amy Adams can then use events (which we slowly learn are future events and not past events) to solve problems in the present.
It’s a fascinating premise and I wish it had been introduced as the midpoint instead of the break into the third act. Not that this film isn’t ambitious both conceptually and structurally, but I’d love to explore that time-travel-through-memory concept more thoroughly. By the time it’s introduced there’s so much as stake we lose the ability to explore the power as we’re too busy watching it save humanity.
Overall, it’s a small gripe with the film as it is and more of a plea for what the film could have been.
Another note - visually - the focus was absurdly shallow and specific for a lot of the film. Maybe to highlight and underscore the specificity of memory and how our mind works. Either way, I found it a bit over used and distracting. We find ourselves in some spectacular landscapes or multi-character scenes and only one person’s face is in focus. It’s interesting visually, but prevents the viewer from scanning the frame - which I find not only annoying but limiting to the storytelling (in contrast to a film like Citizen Cane where the use of background, foreground, and center each tell a different story).
Loved the premise of language as the Rosetta stone for humanity’s first contact with Aliens, and Arrival almost perfectly lives up to the premise. After this and Sicario I’m excited to not only go back and watch Prisoners, but for what Denis Villeneuve will do next.