Reel Dad: Arrival misses the mark

Amy Adams in Arrival, with Jeremy Renner.
Amy Adams in Arrival, with Jeremy Renner.

by Jonathan Schumann

(This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure to review Arrival, a new film. Jonathan shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006. He now lives in New York City.)

Though we often judge science fiction films on the menace and make-up the aliens bring to the picture, the genre has always been more about us humans instead of the creatures from beyond. The rise of science fiction in the 1950s came in direct response to an increasingly tense political environment, with films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! articulating a number of tacit societal fears. Though, through the years, the genre has often been reduced to creative pyrotechnics, looking out has always been an easier way for American audiences to look in.

So enters the new film Arrival, which since its debut at the Venice Film Festival has been dubbed a “thinking man’s” sci-fi thriller, but ends up feeling more like a clunky stew of aliens and allegory.

The plot is pretty straightforward – alien space ships appear without warning across the globe. They don’t announce themselves with Independence Day-style destruction and actually don’t appear hostile at the outset. Instead, they’re just really, really chatty. Unfortunately, alien language is a bit difficult to decipher, which leads the US Army to bring in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a celebrated linguist, to act as an interpreter. The logic here seems to be that, if you’re great at Mandarin, you’ll be a whiz at alien.

Louise isn’t alone in this intergalactic spelling bee. Her team consists of Forest Whitaker as the stern army general who is ultimately a softie, Jeremy Renner as the requisite “man of science” and Michael Stuhlberg as a CIA bureaucrat who may be more threatening than the aliens themselves.

As the film ping-pongs between brief conversations with the aliens in their half-moon shaped ship and the government drama on the ground, the film struggles to figure out what story it wants to tell. It vacillates between being a character study about an emotionally-wounded woman tasked with saving the world as a metaphor for the current political moment and a more traditional sci-fi thriller. Unfortunately, the film lacks the claustrophobia and intimacy of Gravity which helped us truly empathize with Sandra Bullock and her dilemma. It’s also not smart enough to gamely probe the geopolitical situation it portrays, so the stabs at allegory fall flat. And, as a thriller, it’s just not that thrilling.

The letdown of Arrival is all the more surprising given it comes from director Denis Villeneuve who delivered incredible tension in Sicario. The dramatic set pieces here lack the taut, teasing thrills that defined that film. The performances here also fail to elevate the material. Adams has the tough job of playing an emotionally restrained character who never really lets us in. Her take on the part is understated to the point of flatness. Renner and Whitaker also fail to bring depth to their stock characters, while only Stuhlberg brings menace and dimension to a potentially clichéd role.


(Arrival is Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The film, now playing in area theaters, runs 1 hour, 57 minutes.) Rating: 2.5 Popcorn Buckets

Video Pick

Interested in a film suggested by Arrival? Take a look at what’s currently streaming:

Gravity (2013)

At the time I was lukewarm on this technical wonder, but Arrival’s failure brings this Alfonso Cuaron film’s triumph into clearer focus. The creativity of its catastrophe (just how much can and will go wrong?) and Sandra Bullock’s sensitive performance elevate it beyond its genre trappings.

(Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. It runs 91 minutes.)

e-tHow Movies Embrace Aliens: E.T.

by Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad

As we absorb what the aliens may be thinking in Arrival, another classic film reminds us how much fun we can have at the movies when we invite creatures from outer space to join us.

That sense of fun is especially important when we’re scared by changes here on earth. Few things can frighten as much as the fear of our home life changing. And, when things at home become less than predictable, family members may find it necessary to retreat to worlds where we have more control. Sometimes, we may even get some help.

In the hands of Steven Spielberg, himself a child of divorced parents, the uncertain family dynamics become the backdrop for a child’s amazing adventure in the director’s classic, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial from 1982. While the excitement could fuel a marvelous movie fantasy, Spielberg has more on his mind than to let the action take off. He sees the child’s journey with this fascinating creature as a way to express the stability that enables any person to give his very best.

As E.T. begins, Elliott is a young boy with a lot on his mind. He has a single mother who is stressed, an older brother who picks on him, and a younger sister who screams a lot. So he feels a dream comes true when a strange and wonderful creature appears in his backyard one evening. This odd little figure has, apparently, wandered off from his visiting space ship, and seeks the security of home, something he and Elliott share. As the boy from the suburbs grows to love this creature from outer space – and names the creature E.T. – they both learn what unconditional love actually means.

Spielberg tells the story from a child’s point of view. This is not – as Spielberg himself created with Close Encounters – an adult’s view of the possibility of life in outer space. Nor is this a scientific examination of the possibility that such a possibility even exists. This is, instead, an inspiring look at what a child believes and what he can experience when the child acknowledges what he needs. Elliott makes us believe in E.T. because he believes. And as he sees his little friend face serious challenges in the film’s final act, Elliott’s hurt becomes our hurt. We share the joy as this young boy seeking to experience what home can mean looks to this new and wonderful friend as a lifesaver even as the unusual visitor clings to the hope of returning to his home, too.

E.T. creates a rich world for its central character. We learn to adore E.T. because we appreciate what he can mean to Elliott’s world; the creature from outer space brings stability to the boy’s life. We are inspired by how unselfish E.T. is, how giving he can be, and what he means to Elliott’s life. And we are entertained by his antics, his humor and his supernatural gifts. The film also teaches us what It can mean to say goodbye to someone we love. That hollow hurt – no matter how old we may be – never gets easier to tend. And any friend, imaginary, real or from outer space, can be essential to our lives. Sometimes we have to let go to truly understand what friendship is.

See you at the movies.

(E.T. is rated PG for language and mild thematic elements. The film runs 155 minutes.)