Arrival: Movie Review

arrival_ending_explainedArrival is a science fiction movie released in 2016 and directed by Denis Villeneuve (the same director of Blade Runner 2049, among other things), starring Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals), Jeremy Renner (various Marvel films) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland). Villeneuve is currently considered among the most promising directors, if not already among the best ones, and he’s also very prolific. Between 2013 and 2017 he made Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and the Blade Runner sequel, then he finally stopped for a moment because evidently Dune, coming soon, requires some time! So far let me admit that he hasn’t entered the list of directors I particularly like: I’ve enjoyed most of his films, but none of them really convinced me (probably my favorite is Sicario). And what about Arrival?

Arrival starts from a premise which has been widely exploited in literature and cinema: unidentified spaceships arrive on Earth and humans begin a first contact with the aliens within them. Instead of starting with a silly war like, for example, Independence Day (1996), Villeneuve gives his film a slow and reflective rhythm by following the efforts of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), assisted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner: I will never understand why Hollywood thinks that jocks are good choices to portrait scientists: for example, I’m thinking of Russell Crowe playing the skinny John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, 2001). The two work under the careful supervision of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) with the UFO which landed in Montana, while other world governments are making similar efforts in the other eleven sites that include China, Russia, Sudan and Australia, among others.

So the whole first part of the film plays with silences, small steps forward in communication with the two aliens in the spaceship, and confrontations between the two scientists and the colonel who wants concrete results quickly. Here I appreciated the study made to portray in a realistic way the approach to the comprehension of a totally unknown, extraterrestrial language. The two aliens, nicknamed Abbott and Costello, prove to have a written language as well as a spoken one, and one of the mysteries lies in the lack of correlation between what they communicate by writing and what they say through their strange voices.

Unfortunately, the director quickly throws in the towel: instead of continuing with the slow path of difficult communication between terrestrials and extraterrestrials, at a certain point there’s a time jump of months with a narrating voice explaining the progress made. Then, dear Villeneuve, what’s the point of the slow rhythm if you can’t keep it and in order not to get stuck you put a big narrated explanation in the middle of your movie? And not only that! When Louise finally manages to get close to one of the two aliens to talk, some subtitles appear to reveal to the viewer the meaning of the signs of the extraterrestrial. Was there really no smarter way to convey the message? This reminded me of the Interstellar robot (2014) that accompanies the protagonist for the sole purpose of explaining aloud to the viewer what’s going on (Kubrick was careful not to do that in his 2001: A Space Odyssey).

So here’s my criticisms on the part of the movie dealing with communication. One thing that instead I liked (even if it’s not too original) is the aliens’ conception of time as being non-linear. This is perhaps the most compelling theme of the entire film: understanding the alien language means going beyond the differences between past, present, and future. I also liked the fact that this doesn’t mean being able to change the future to your liking: the characters don’t seem to have the opportunity to make this kind of choice, even if they know the future! Louise will choose to have a daughter with Ian despite knowing what she’s going to experience, just as the Chinese general (Tzi Ma) will have to show (the general’s words seem to suggest that) his phone number to Louise in the future, as well as reveal to her the last words of his wife. And this also explains the great sadness of the character of Amy Adams, impeccable in her interpretation.

What else to say? Given the beginning of the film, I was disappointed by the finale with the race against time to avoid a war just barely avoided to a last-minute phone call. I also laughed at the way in which the US military bends to any request made by the two scientists… and it’s laughable how the only acts of violence come from some marines who watched too much bad television. I understand that this is an American production, but do people still believe in the good army at the service of the population and of its well-being? I found it ridiculous.

To conclude, do I recommend watching arrival? This is certainly an interesting film, despite its flaws. It has some beautiful scenes that take advantage of its excellent special effects, Amy Adams is very good, and the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is great (made by superimposing sounds on magnetic tapes sent in infinite loops, in line with the plot). But it’s certainly far from being a science fiction masterpiece! Ciao!

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10 risposte a "Arrival: Movie Review"

    1. Your words made me search for movies about communication and languages and I didn’t find much… for instance, My Fair Lady is a movie about communication and language, but it’s fairly distant from the exploration of communication attempted in Arrival. Other science fiction movies mildly touched on the subject (even Mars Attacks! by Tim Burton) but didn’t dig into it.

      And there are basically no other movies with linguists protagonists to the best of my knowledge! So maybe one day somebody will make that movie… :–)

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  1. Oh wow you really didn’t like it! I find it’s one of the best SF films of recent years! Really different from most with its lack of action and focus on the science, and with very good directing. The alien-ness of the aliens is really well conveyed, in the whole first part of the movie. And the whole visions from the future that become clearer and clearer as the linguist’s understanding of the alien language becomes better, I found that extremely well made, confusing at first and unsettling, but that was the point.

    So I don’t understand your criticisms of this movie! There’s a lot more respect to the science of linguistics here than in most any other alien contact movie. The tension between scientists and the military follows logically and I understand both sides given how the aliens could very well prove to be a menace; this is all well integrated in the theme of the movie, communication and understanding of the other. The ending with the Chinese general in the future sells the mindblowing twist of the aliens’ language very well, and warrants a repeat viewing. For more Sapir-Worff hypothesis, read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 and see TNG’s Darmok! 😉

    Also: Denis Villeneuve is Quebecois and this is based on Ted Chiang’s short story, an American/Chinese — so it’s not your classic Hollywood film! Villeneuve’s best in my opinion, along with Incendies, which you should definitely watch!

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    1. Did I come across that negative? It wasn’t my intention! There are some things of the movie that I did appreciate, I only think that it didn’t manage to develop fully what it set out to do. The linguistics science part of the movie was good, until it was thrown out of the window with quick explanations, a time jump, and the use of subtitles, for instance.

      As for the conflict science – military: I didn’t see it, actually the military accept to be led by the two scientists all the time!

      Anyway, it’s certainly better than trash science fiction like Independence Day and movies like that, but still… I didn’t love it as you do! And I even rewatched it recently (as you know)! :–)

      As for TNG’s Darmok… I’ve seen it so many times already! That was a bold episode, exploring linguistics and first contact like that…

      Shaka, when the walls fell. :–D

      (the Incendies DVD is right there on a shelf, sooner or later I’ll watch it!)

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  2. Well the time jump allows to move to the next act in the movie, otherwise it would have been a ten hour movie with very slow progress — you know, like real science! 😀
    I remember the scientists being under a lot of pressure from the military because there was worry that others in the world might use the alien technology as weapons, so there was conflict in that sense.
    And hey, I actually liked Independence Day (!), but I liked it for what it was, dumb cool action…definitely not the same expectations as Arrival!!!

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    1. I remember watching Independence Day at a cinema (that same year I also saw Twister and Mission: Impossible)… I probably liked it back then! X–D

      Now I don’t think I would enjoy it much (apart from Will Smith)…

      To me the time jump + narrator + subtitles felt like throwing the towel… Or at least I found all of that not in line with the first part which is slow paced and much more enjoyable! :–)

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