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Non-Review Review: Arrival

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.

Going in circles.

Going in circles.

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.

Falling to Earth.

Falling to Earth.

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?

Valley forge alien relations.

Valley forge alien relations.

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.

"Don't worry, I've seen Children of Earth."

“Don’t worry, I’ve seen Children of Earth.”

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.

Seeing trouble ahead.

Seeing trouble ahead.

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.

Don't touch the gas.

Don’t touch the gas.

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.

Suited to the task.

Suited to the task.

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.

Objects in space.

Objects in space.

Arrival doesn’t quite stick the landing.

14 Responses

  1. Even you sound disappointed with this film, I have to confess that I am relieved that it is not another alien invasion film, which is what I feared from the trailers.
    “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.” I think another great example of this would be Pan’s Labyrinth. There so many themes in that film, but the two main themes, Facism and Imagination are beautifully intermingled. Furthermore, both are crucial to the plot and the central characters, Ophelia and Captain Vidal.

    • Pan’s Labrynth is a great example.

      I think Inception and Interstellar stuck with me because that was the conversation that I had with my friend after the credits started rolling.

      And no, it is definitely not an alien invasion film. It has great ideas. It just doesn’t understand how to anchor them in basic storytelling. It’s hard to explain without getting spoilery, but I think we’ll see what I mean. And Amy Adams is brilliant.

  2. I disagree with your assessment that it doesn’t stick the landing. I thought it not only stuck the landing, but then soared. We agree on the polish of it, though, and Adams’ amazing performance (might finally get her Oscar???)


    • Adams’ performance is amazing. Although Emma Stone is my personal preference for the Oscar so far, though I’m looking forward to Voila Davis in Fences.

  3. Oddly it actually reminded a LOT me of ‘Signs’, another problematic film (though I enjoyed it a lot more than most) where the aliens were essentially a conduit to a deeper personal understanding by the damaged protagonist.

    • Ironically, a protagonist who wouldn’t be “damaged” until after the events depicted in the film.

      I have a lot to say about the film’s decisions, but I might get into that this weekend.

  4. Just saw the film Darren and it kinda left a bitter taste in ma mouth nearing the end. The stakes seemed to soar high near the climax only to be severly undercut by a string of emotional catharsis rather than exploring the themes it presented initially.

    I rather loved the opening shot of the ceiling depicting our very limited way of perception and understanding until the alien ship’s base doors opened offering a completely new take on how we view language and our general outlook on human existence. I also loved the whole ‘paradox of time concept’. Like u said, it opened alota doors for debate an discussion. Me and my other half delved into all manner of assumptions about what meant what to whom an so forth.

    It was a bit drawn out too, and I dont mind movies being drawn out as long as the set up is good enough to warrant a pleasant pay off. This wasnt so.

    It was good for the most part though..

    • Yep, Michail.

      I mean, I am not as big a fan of the film as most others seem to be, but I do like that it’s a nice launching pad for discussion and debate. And the visuals are brilliant, as you point out. Lots of nice visual metaphors, particularly the barrier imagery.

  5. What I appreciate about this movie is that it takes it’s time and avoids the Hollywood cliches about mcguffins and saving the world and s’plosions. I’ve only seen the movie once, and may require other viewings to get a better handle on it, but it seems that the movie misjudges itself. Thematically, and structurally, the movie was about the “journey, not the destination”. The problem is that the movie “ends” with the protagonist getting together with her future husband and acts like this is the moment that ties the movie together. The problem is that the movie isn’t about her getting together with her love interest, it’s about aliens arriving on Earth. What the movie used as a clue to help further the main plot, instead hijacks the movie and becomes the new plot, despite the movie not being about this new plot, and it just sort of leaves the main premise of the movie just hanging.

    Still, I can’t be too mad at this movie, slow sci-fi is so hard to come by these days, and this movie did give me new insight about languages shaping perception. That I feel is the mark of a true Sci-Fi movie, when you leave it wiser then when you started, but the ending I feel does stop it from becoming a classic. It’s almost like they ran out of time to do a real ending, and came up with what they did instead. The twist in the movie still works with the ending, but again, the movie isn’t about the two of them coming together, or “learning” that journey is more important regardless of the destination (It’s about that, but the characters don’t “learn” it, the protagonist just accepts it, and her love interest does not, and never will), so the movie doesn’t quite finish properly.

    • That’s a fair point, actually.

      But I think that there’s also a problem in the way that the film invests more energy in the theme of “communication” rather than “fatalism.” So when the characters use time travel to resolve the international crisis, it feels like a betrayal and a cop-out rather than a thematic point.

  6. I really liked Arrival and I think it merits a second viewing. I was semi-spoiled going in and I think I enjoyed it more because of that. You note an absence of tension in the climax of the plot. I actually felt there was a bit too much tension and it felt forced. The delicately handled reveal of how Louise gained access to the full alien message (earlier it was mentioned it would take years to read), rendered much of that plot moot. Arguably, the need to engage with that type of traditional standoff ending, is driven by audience’s expectations of a linear plot beginning, middle and end. I thought this was extremely clever on the part of the filmmakers. The real climax is the only one that matters. When she first arrived in Montana someone was carted off and a comment is made that some people can’t handle it. Whether this person experienced the same thing or not is irrelevant.

    The pivot from the ideas about language is clever because it is seamless. Language is how we communicate. It first feels like the film has something to say about humans’ communication, or lack thereof, with each other. A non-zero sum game, as referenced in the film, relies on communication to refute some principles of game theory. This would have been a neat way to go, but as Louise begins to understand the aliens’ non-linear language it begins to affect how she thinks and “how you see everything.” This is set up very early on. The payoff is that as she begins to see time as non-linear the audience understands the film is non-linear. And once the audience understands the film is non-linear, it seemed to me that the goal of the plot was not to avoid an international crisis, but to properly address what she intends to do with her grief and the film, like the aliens’ language, becomes circular and more concerned with effectively communicating an idea.

    I think the film is deliberately silent on Louise’s backstory. One theme is that communication depends on perspective. This is played out in how different countries engage with the aliens (the Chinese interacting through game play). It is also played out with Louise’s character. She begins the film inviting projection upon her by the audience. It invites the audience to live with her grief and expect the film’s plot to allow her to cope with it. The clever reversal serves as the emotional climax as, instead, she embraces it.

    • I think we’re now well pas the film’s release, so I can talk a bit more about what I didn’t like with spoilers. (Although I recorded a podcast on Arrival that goes into a lot more depth, as part of The 250.)

      I thought the ideas were great, but the execution a lot less so. “Remember this conversation from the future” is a nice idea. Having a character the future literally tell Louise the words that she needs to hear in order to defuse the situation is an extremely lame way of visualising it. It removes the agency of anybody involved. Even a less overt way of doing it, with less exposition, would work better.

      And the same thing about the dead child. It’s a good idea, but it’s also incredibly cynical in execution. And I like the structuring of opening the film with it, out of order, as an example of the non-linear narrative. Louise knows the child will die, which is an interesting character beat. However, she neglects to tell her husband until after the child is born, which is one of those “creepy sci-fi sexual consent” issues that the film completely glosses over. Louise has the right to choose that suffering for herself, but what about for her husband and daughter? That’s something that the film throws out there, but never unpacks.

      And then there’s the whole question of whether the story can have any stakes if the aliens can see the future and know that everything will work out. (Because if they didn’t know everything worked out, they could just see the future to learn English and speak directly to the people of Earth, rather than letting it all play out.) Predestination is a powerful theme, but Arrival never really grasps that nettle.

      All of this makes it sound like I hate the film more than I do. Like a lot of Villeneuve’s output, I think it works a lot better than it really should when you lay all of the elements out. It’s a credit to him that it works.

      • First, I agree that the execution of these ideas works largely because of Villeneuve and his cinematographer.
        And I can really appreciate the problem you’re having, which is really a problem with the plot mechanics. The thing is, with an idea like this, I’m not sure the plot mechanics are the point. But by that point, there was an emotional investment in the personal stakes. Also by that point, Louise also had the ability to break communication barriers that led to the international crisis. So having the future character convey that information to her was a bit disappointing but fits since the crisis was caused due to lack of communication. The bigger conflict was the one not so easily solved, what to do about her relationships. Admittedly, the film skimped on this, but to be fair there is a 2 decades long family drama there, albeit with a sci fi twist, that could have been a whole other film. Her decision not to tell the father everything at the outset fits with these themes – lack of communication causing her another needless problem. Still, the personal choice to have a family in those circumstances, is so compelling, because its easily the most difficult (as she put it, unstoppable) problem in the film.
        There are other works that play out that personal drama better, or at least devote more time to it. I can think of the novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, and the film Groundhog Day, actually.

      • I mean, I’m wary of seeming too harsh on the film. I didn’t love it, I had some serious issues, but I do admire it’s ambition and would love to see more big screen science-fiction like it. But it just didn’t land for me as well as it did for other people.

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