Can a science-fiction film be Oscar bait? Eons ago—in 2009—this would have been a ridiculous question. Prior to that year, only three such movies had ever been nominated for best picture: A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, and E.T. But in the seven years since the category expanded beyond five nominees, seven films from the genre have been nominated. Most have tended towards the brainy (Her), the mind-bending (Inception), and the wonky (The Martian). All together—with the possible exception of Mad Max: Fury Road—this batch of sci-fi nominees seems less interested in escapist thrills than in scientific accuracy (see also Gravity) and political allegory (Avatar, District 9). They’re popcorn as engineered through molecular gastronomy.
Enter Arrival. The new film from Denis Villeneuve checks each and every one of these boxes. It’s brainy, with its hero linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) offering explications of concepts like the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. It’s mind-bending, reveling in the kind of time paradoxes that dare you to diagram them with elaborate flowcharts. And it’s wonky, with its other main character, a theoretical mathematician played by Jeremy Renner, explaining one of the film’s twists by revealing that .083333 … is (spoiler alert?) precisely equivalent to 1/12.
And like many recent prestige sci-fi movies (and so many nonprestigious ones), Arrival focuses on alien contact. That alien race first appears around the globe in giant, somewhat Sphere-ical spaceships—and thanks to the film’s coy marketing strategy, you probably have no idea what they look like. (I won’t spoil their appearance, which is relatively novel, except to say: Why do movie aliens always have to be green?) This restraint is admirable, but it’s also, arguably, born of necessity. If you go into this mid-budget film with the expectation that it will erupt into a third-act CGI spectacle, you will be disappointed.
Instead, the film’s tagline “Why are they here?” is in fact its driving question. Most of the action, such as it is, involves Amy Adams’ linguist and Jeremy Renner’s mathematician trying to speak to the aliens and figure out what they’re saying back. All the chat about nonlinear orthography can get a bit academic, and its dominant motif also functions as a kind of microcosm of all these brainy, high-toned sci-fi movies: scientists pointing markers at whiteboards while explaining the inner workings of the plot.
There’s another film, of course, that checked all these boxes, whiteboards and all, and received a lot of Oscar buzz—though it ultimately failed to convert all this into a best picture nomination. And like Interstellar, Arrival is only intermittently stellar. Indeed, it resembles, above all, that and other Christopher Nolan movies. Its idea-heavy dialogue is often clunky, such as when Adams’ voice-over muses, “We are so bound by time. By its order.” (Yeah, man.) Selma cinematographer Bradford Young’s carefully composed images are mostly drained of color. The mood is mournful, even though the dead girl being mourned (another common feature of Nolan’s films) only appears in visions and flashbacks. Its score, courtesy of the brilliant Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, is eerie and romantic, but it’s reminiscent less of Brahms than brAAAAHMS. And it has a twist ending that will leave you puzzling over the mechanics of its rug-pulling. Watching it, I was excited that such a strange piece of science fiction got made—and disappointed to realize that it is strange in just about all the ways that Interstellar is.
But while even Nolan’s detractors couldn’t deny his skill at manufacturing awe, the primary emotion that Arrival evokes is puzzlement. For most of the film’s runtime, the two main characters remain, like the aliens’ language, ciphers; the great actors Michael Stuhlbarg and Forest Whitaker, meanwhile, mostly serve the familiar roles of the hawkish military man and the confused audience surrogate (i.e. the Ariadne). Meanwhile, though there are moments of striking, inventive imagery—such as an Inception-like journey down a hallway whose gravity pulls in more than one direction—they are brief.
Still, it’s perhaps unfair to compare this mid-budget, $47 million feature to the work of our most successful creator of original mega-budget films, and there are also ways in which Arrival improves on Nolan’s work. For one, it actually passes the Bechdel test (either just barely or, depending on the gender identity of the aliens, with flying colors). This is not surprising from director Villeneuve, whose last film was the war-on-drugs thriller Sicario, which similarly centered on a woman who is as tough as the men who surround her.
But Arrival has another theme, and although it’s secondary, it’s the one that is likely to stand out most to moviegoers watching the movie after the election of President Trump. The movie depicts a divided world where people struggle to understand each other, where panic leads groups to wall themselves off, watch their own media, and burrow deeper into their own bunkers. In the end, of course, our heroes figure out how to transcend these barriers—but the solution is a deus ex machina beamed down by the extraterrestrials. For all the movie’s attention to whiteboards and arcane linguistic theories, this week it feels like a total fantasy.