Arrival has a number of great central ideas, and a fantastic central performance.
Those ideas get the film relatively far. Arrival is a film strong enough to stand on the basis of its high concepts and its leading performance. Arrival plays with a whole host of big and bold science-fiction ideas that hint at powerful philosophical questions about humankind’s place in the universe and their perception of their very existence. These ideas are clever and thought-provoking, capable of sparking many late-night conversations over pizza or refreshments in the way that great movies tend to do. Amy is simply wonderful as the movie’s primary character.
Unfortunately, Arrival hits something of a wall once it fully maps out its big ideas and its bold premises. The film has these sometimes clever notions, but never expends the necessary energy to tie them into a coherent plot or a logical character arc. Arrival seems to think that these ideas are smart enough that there is no thought required in how best to use them. The result is a muddled film, one that seems as likely to conjure frustrated questioning of its underlying logic as much as of its big ideas
Ironically, Arrival charts an interesting course but never quite gets there.
There are any number of clever ideas nestled snuggly within Arrival. Notionally, the film concerns the arrival of twelve alien ships on Earth. Understandably, this causes no shortage of chaos. What does it mean that mankind is not alone? What do the aliens want? How is mankind supposed to speak with them? Louise Banks is drafted in to figure out a method of communication as tensions heighten, with twelve different nations all struggling to communicate with the visitors in their own way.
The basic idea is clever enough, exploring the idea of first contact with an alien race through the notion of language. It is an issue that a lot of pulpy fiction tends to side-step through the use of excuses like the “universal translator”, but it is fascinating to imagine the lingual divide that would exist between mankind and any foreign sentient species. After all, language is shaped by environment and culture. How could mankind ever hope to reach across that infinite void without a common frame of reference?
There is a rich vein of science-fiction that taps into this idea. Science-fiction writer Joe Menosky was fascinated with this question while working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, incorporating it into his scripts for Darmok and Masks. Obviously, it is a fun hypothetical question. However, it also hits upon bigger weightier philosophical ideas. How much of our identity is tied up in language? If language was originally defined by the way we perceived the world, how has that changed? Now that we simply learn language, does that limit our understanding of the universe?
This obviously has all sorts of parallels and applications in the real world. Reality may not necessarily be shaped by language, but it is shaded by it. After all, what is Donald Trump’s campaign except the result of decades of fear-mongering and panic-stoking; apocalyptic dialogue rendered as flesh, the rhetoric of the culture wars coalescing into one grotesque form. Arrival repeatedly touches on this idea, exploring how news networks and conspiracy theorists and even idle gossip colour and shape the planet’s response to the visitors.
Early in the film, Louise takes a phone call from her mother. She tries to stay calm, despite her mother’s obvious distress. “I told you not to watch that channel,” Louise insists. It is not too difficult to imagine the news channel in question. Later on, a soldier finds himself pushed to breaking point by the angry rhetoric of an online conspiracy theorist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alex Jones. How a person understands and perceives the world is filtered through the words applied to it and the context within which it is framed.
Arrival pivots very cleverly off its theme of communication and language towards a second idea. The visitors are presented as mysterious entities, unknown and perhaps unknowable. However, they communicate in their own way. Humanity writes sentences in a linear manner; English writes from left to right, but most language is structured into lines a clear beginning to a clear. In contrast, the aliens write in circles. It is never immediately clear where an idea begins or ends.
As Louise spends more time with the visitors, her increasing understanding of the universe begins to shift. “Are you dreaming in their language?” she is asked at one point, and the clear indication that she is. Arrival touches on the idea of language as a viral mutation, but also tying it to bigger concepts about the fundamental ordering principles of the universe. This is quite heavy subject matter for a film like this, and Arrival embraces the idea quite firmly. It certainly carries it to a conclusion.
In many ways, Arrival feels like a very pulpy science-fiction idea given the prestige treatment. It is playing with the concept of language in the same way that Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror plays with the idea of networking or that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who plays with the idea of time. It feels very much like a big-budget adaptation of a particularly beloved and ambitious episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, although they could never have produced something that looks this beautiful.
The problem is that Arrival is simply too polished to commit to its big ideas with the necessary attention to detail. Arrival is very much structured as a prestige picture, building towards a catharsis that is emotional more than logical, one more interested in Amy Adams’ performance than in skilfully paying off the clever ideas at the heart of the story. There is a sense that Arrival might have flowed a lot better had it embraced its potential as a pulpy genre film rather than trying to incorporate these concepts into a framework that seems actively hostile towards them.
As the film barrels towards its climax, as the big questions receive answers, Arrival refuses to engage in the necessary tidy-up that is required to get this story to work. Once the movie’s central reveal is made, the narrative resolves itself by following the path of least resistance. There is no tension, no anxiety. More than that, the big reveal ties up a whole host of thematic ideas without offering a satisfying plot resolutions. The movie’s emotional pay-off is rooted in assumptions that go unexplored and undeveloped.
Indeed, the movie’s cleverest idea is also the most dangerous. The movie’s themes are rich and its performances are great, but the movie races towards a plot point that immediately undercuts the narrative and renders a lot of the story moot. To go into any greater depth runs the risk of spoiling certain plot developments, but there are similar logical holes baked into the very premise of the film. The aliens show up on Earth demonstrating remarkably advanced technology beyond human comprehension; why is it up to the less advanced species to make contact?
It could be argued that this is a common problem when prestige pictures attempt to embrace pulpy ideas. Movies like Inception and Interstellar are great examples of the commitment required to these sorts of concepts, a willingness to wed theme and concept to plot and character. Arrival lacks that sort of connective tissue, and suffers as a direct result. It is a shame, because Amy Adams is brilliant in the lead role as a linguist thrown way out of her depth to deal with something far beyond her own frame of reference.
Arrival doesn’t quite stick the landing.