One thing I love about movies is when they make me think. I don’t necessarily have to agree with their conclusions, I just have to be compelled to examine or question something I may not have otherwise. Arrival is a film that attempts to do that to its audience. It incorporates complex themes about how we view life, how we communicate, and what’s truly important. However, it didn’t leave me thinking about those things. It left me thinking about what aspects of the movie made the least amount of sense. While its acting, cinematography, and visual effects are all suitably gripping, Arrival suffers as a story, starting off with potential, but doing more to confuse its audience than answer any of their questions.
In order for me to explain, I will have to discuss certain aspects of the film’s plot. So, consider this a spoiler warning. If you have not yet seen this film, read at your own risk.
Arrival is the story of Louise, a linguistics expert who is contracted by the federal government to decipher the language of an alien race that has landed on earth. When she is unsuccessful at figuring out their spoken language, she attempts to communicate using written language. She discovers that the aliens’ written language does not work the same way as humans’ language does. Instead of having words arranged in linear sentences, the aliens express an idea or sentence in one complex circular symbol. While this is an interesting aspect on its own, the film takes it a step further. We learn that the aliens’ conception of the world, and specifically time, is the same as the way they use written language. By that, I mean that in the same way they can see the whole message in one symbol, they can see their whole life at once. They can see the future. But the movie doesn’t stop there. When Louise learns their language, she gains the ability to see the future, too. This is based on a concept called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This hypothesis says that the structure of a person’s language affects their view of the world. While this idea is interesting, the lengths to which Arrival takes it are absurd. The idea that learning a language could give a human the ability to see the future is so unrealistic that it destroys all suspension of disbelief in anything else the film presents. Now, in another movie or show, an idea like this could possibly work. For instance, in the show Doctor Who, The Doctor famously says, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.” Now, Doctor Who is a comedic show that isn’t meant to be realistic. The makers of the show know that nothing in it could really happen, and they expect their audience to know this as well. Arrival, however, is supposed to be a realistic science fiction movie whose concepts are ostensibly based in real-world science. It’s supposed to be grounded in reality.
In addition to the aforementioned problem, Arrival suffers from some other issues. The climactic moment of the film, the part that is supposed to be the most revelatory, is actually the most confusing. The central question of the film, why the aliens are on earth at all, is only superficially answered. Basically, they want to help humanity so that eventually, humanity can help them. However, it’s never explained why advanced beings that can see the future and travel across light years of space in self-sustaining floating pods would need humanity’s help. In addition, it’s not clear how the aliens help humanity. The film’s explanation is that the aliens help humanity by giving humanity the aliens’ language, but it is never really explained why the the aliens’ language would be helpful, other than that it would let humanity see the future. While some might think this would be a good thing, many others would view the ability to see the future as a curse. Arrival never explores this idea, and simply assumes its audience will find it a good thing. So, the aliens came to earth to trade the ability to see the future for some unknown thing they will inexplicably need later. That’s the climactic revelation, which to me, seems incredibly anti-climactic.
Now, during all this, some other countries where the aliens landed, such as China, are planning to attack the aliens, thinking that they are hostile. Louise uses her future-seeing powers to figure out the Chinese general’s phone number, and then calls him. She is able to convince him to hold off the attack by telling him something he told her in her vision of the future, a future that could only happen if the Chinese hold off their attack. This is clearly a paradox. Neither event can exist without the other.
Despite what you may be thinking right now, there actually were elements of Arrival that I enjoyed. On a personal level, I enjoyed the way the movie intelligently deconstructs and explains different aspects of language, since I am a person who is passionate about the English language. Arrival also anchors its complex intellectual themes with emotional ones, particularly a daughter of Louise’s who dies of cancer, and a husband who leaves her. At first, you think this is actually in the past, but eventually it’s revealed that this happens in the future. Louise knows all this will happen, but she still chooses to marry and have her daughter. The message of the movie seems to be that even though life, and human relationships, are fleeting, they are still worth living and having.
On a technical level, Arrival excels. The actors, cinematography and music are excellent as well, making the atmosphere suitably tense and gripping. However, the film tends to jump around between different scenes, which left me confused at times as to what was going on.
Denis Villeneuve is an extremely talented director, and his skill definitely shows in Arrival. It’s visually engaging and technically proficient. I’m sure it will be up for multiple awards at the Oscars. However, when I see a movie, I want it to make sense, and I want to be able to understand it. Arrival is a confusing story that demands to be taken seriously while assuming its audience will blindly accept concepts that are, frankly, ludicrous. It’s a movie that wants to make you think, but will probably just leave you perplexed.
Release Date | November 11, 2016
MPAA Rating | PG-13 (For brief strong language)
Director | Denis Villeneuve
Distributor | Paramount