Arrival is director Denis Velleneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer more thoughtful answer to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Independence Day. The basic set-up is similar – alien spaceships arrive and hover above ground in 12 locations around the world, but make no gestures toward invasion or peaceful first contact. Instead, the ships just essentially sit there, leaving the rest of the world scrambling to figure out what to do next. In Emmerich and Devlin’s hands, this all built up to a purposefully cheesy War of the Worlds riff featuring patriotic speeches and a cute dog jumping from a fireball; in Velleneuve and Heisserer’s hands, furrow-browed scientists stare intently at computer screens and diagrams as they figure out how to communicate with the aliens. The world’s salvation, Arrival suggests, ultimately rests on the moral and emotional clarity of the story’s only significant female character (Amy Adams’ linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks) since most of the males eventually resort to saber-rattling.
And then there’s that big twist. Ever since Arrival debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, the world’s film critics have been struggling to figure out how to talk about the movie without spoiling the big twist, which is not only central to the story from a plot standpoint but also to our understanding of the story and its themes.
Having now seen Arrival, I would regard it was one of the more intriguing films of the year, yet I am still grappling with how successful it actually is. The opening scenes seriously drag and fail to completely engage, and then once Dr. Banks and her government assigned partner Dr. Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) make their first breakthrough with the aliens the film resorts to a montage which feels like a giant cheat. However, I was pulled in by the humanist bent of the sci-fi, and genuinely thrilled by the scenes in which Dr. Banks explains the complexities of language to her military handlers (and thus to the audience). I walked away pleased, certainly more than I was with the film I saw immediately afterward (i.e., the not-quite-fantastic Fantastic Beasts), and would heartily recommend Arrival as a film worth seeing, especially considering how much its simplistic plea for global unity resonates in this age of nationalism and xenophobia. But I might need a repeat viewing to reach a true conclusion on what I think of it as a film.
Others have been quicker to make up their minds, with some praising Arrival as a work of art and others dismissing it as a Hollywoodized work of sentimentality which only seems deep in a year in which the likes of Batman v Superman have so significantly lowered the bar. As such, in open mimicry of a regular feature Letterboxd includes in its newsletters I’m sharing excerpts from two Arrival reviews with clearly opposing viewpoints as well as an excerpt from a more mixed review:
“Arrival is a stunning science fiction movie with deep implications for today” (by Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson)
It’s best not to say much more about the plot, except that it is pure pleasure to feel it unfold. The most visionary film yet from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and scripted by horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), its pacing is slower than you’d expect from an alien-invasion film, almost sparse. For a movie with so many complicated ideas, it doesn’t waste any more time on exposition than is absolutely necessary. Arrival is serious and smartly crafted, shifting around like a Rubik’s cube in the hand of a savant, nothing quite making sense until all the pieces suddenly come together. I heard gasps in the theater.
It’s not hard to see where this is going, I imagine — something about how if we want to empathize with each other we need to talk to one another, and that’s the way the human race will survive.
But Arrival also layers in some important secondary notes that add nuance to that easy takeaway. Because it’s not just deciphering the words that someone else is saying that’s important: It’s the whole framework that determines how those words are being pinned to meaning. We can technically speak the same language, but functionally be miles apart.
Arrival takes off from this insight in an undeniably sci-fi direction that is a little brain-bending, improbable in the best way. But it makes a strong case that communication, not battle or combat, is the only way to avoid destroying ourselves. Communication means not just wrapping our heads around terms we use but the actual framework through which we perceive reality.
“The phony good intentions of Arrival and the paradox of ‘realistic’ sci-fi” (by EW‘s Darren Franich)
Arrival comes on strong like an intimate cerebral character piece. But it isn’t not Independence Day-ish. Confused and scared about the aliens’ intentions, the world flips out. The back half of Arrival is a ticking clock, maybe to Armageddon. There are familiar tropes: Clips from fake news networks, paper-thin military types going rogue for paper-thin reasons. There is “The Unspoken Military Might of China” as a co-lead.
The world descends into chaos, and Banks stares at a chalkboard. The fate of the world depends on Amy Adams thinking hard: So Arrival qualifies as “cerebral,” on the sliding scale of popular Hollywood sci-fi. 2016, we can’t forget, was the year of Batman v Superman, a movie where the fate of the world depends on Amy Adams grabbing a spear out of the water after she threw that spear into the water. Compared to kindergarten, fifth grade is college.
There’s a phony core to Arrival, though, which emerges gradually and then suddenly. The film opens with the birth, life, and death of Banks’ daughter. The devastation of her loss haunts the film; mother-daughter scenes play through the movie. It seems like a character note, a clever bit of arc-setting: Banks, grieving the loss of her child, must now midwife our communication with an entirely new species. Perhaps you would say: Having cut herself off from humanity, she must now connect humanity to the stars. Or maybe not everything is plot-essential; maybe this is a movie daring enough to suggest that the characters have a life outside of the constraints of the movie.
But Arrival, turns out, is entirely a Plot Movie. Every character trait and hanging line of dialogue is hermetically sealed into the architecture of what amounts to a Big Twist.
And the narrative trickery obscures a bigger problem. When you dig underneath all the pop-science whiteboarding and mystery-theater theorizing and globalist paranoia, Arrival as a text is pretty sentimental, simple, inoffensive, and bland. It comes on like thoughtful sci-fi, but the thoughts aren’t challenging, the science fuzzy, the fiction unconvincing. Communication is difficult, Arrival tells us, but not impossible. All ambiguities can become certainties. The aliens are here to help us; we can learn how to help each other. Here’s a film that perches the world on the edge of Armageddon, and concludes that, in order to save the world, we really need to be excellent to each other.
Neither Masterpiece nor Disappointing Mess
The film’s unsurprising message is that when alien contact occurs the future of the planet will depend on global cooperation. This theme is packaged inside a story that is told with digital effects that are modest by today’s standards. Some will feel let down by the unimaginative spindly alien forms that are kept at a hazy distance within the concrete bunker-like spaceship setting. The back-story of Louise’s personal life is a distracting melodrama and the concept of memory circularity is a weak idea on which to base the plot. That the Hollywood dream-factory makes America the global saviour again is not new. Unlike other visually ground-breaking Sci-Fi’s this one is more about ideas than spectacle. But it is a thought-provoking film about the technology of language and it works well at this level.