Pretty good! As with Sicario, Villeneuve is able here to maintain genre conventions in such a way as to satisfy the casual consumer of action/sci-fi, while at the same time indulging in some more associative, lyrical, and thought-provoking passages. Neither are cinema for the ages, but they are solid and intelligent films. Notice too that both feature strong female leads (as did the movie for which Villeneuve is still probably best known, Incendies, which I actually haven’t seen yet). Indeed, in the case of Arrival, the men are really nearly irrelevant except insofar as they serve as obstacles for Amy Adams to overcome. I like this Villeneuve guy’s choices, and his style is very cool.
The movie is OK, I guess. The music is terrific, and the Scottish highlands are beautiful. Edinburgh looks like a dump and everyone who lives there should be sent immediately on mercy flights to the Costa del Sol and be caused to eat salad.
There’s a fine line between genuine intensity and fake portentousness, and this movie’s at least half an inch over that line, but there are things to like here, too. I appreciate above all the complete refusal to explain any of the odd things that happen. It’s not even a refusal, actually; it’s just a near-pure indifference. Odd and remarkable things just happen. That seems to me a pretty honest representation of how the world actually works.
In keeping with this spirit, early on there’s not much sense of what the main character’s motivations are as she goes about doing the strange things she does. Later, she seems to take a turn, and become suddenly interested in developing a sense of human intimacy instead of continuing to play her diffident part in a very slow and inefficient program designed to rid the earth of Scotsmen. These later movements reminded me a bit of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, where the angel decides he’d rather be a mortal human than an immortal angel. This is sort of like that, except the angel isn’t very nice.
Or maybe she is nice? It was hard for me to tell whether the main character’s actions, which seemed to involve luring men to oblivion, were being performed out of malice or mercy. Some of the fellows seemed to me to be thinking that getting naked with Scarlett Johansson, walking toward her as she backs away, Grecian-urn style, and then preserving the moment for eternity (in a manner of speaking) is perhaps not a bad way to go.
And yet, someone should tell Scarlett Johansson that staring at things and people with a blank look on her face isn’t acting, it’s boring. I’m reminded of another movie that I liked looking at but not thinking about, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where Johansson is similarly vacant a lot of the time. Is it her own styleless style, or are her directors asking this of her? Why would they do that? It almost feels like a form of radical objectification: Here, beautiful woman, just stand here as stilly as possible and stare at this tree (or housefly or karaoke singer) like you don’t have a thought in your head, while I run my camera all over your body. Look at her up there on the poster. Is she cruel, kind, smart, stupid, violent, gentle, happy, sad, angry, content? No clue, and aside from maybe three or four instants of tiny character developments, the movie itself also keeps her interiority a near-perfect mystery. I would have liked to get a little bit more under that skin.