“Arrival” — A Movie Review by Liz Warner
“Arrival” has largely received very good reviews and was nominated for, or received, awards, but I will be a maverick here. Although I’m a fan of the genre, I didn’t care for this sci-fi flick for the reasons I enumerate below.
The genesis of the movie was as a short story, “Story of Your Life,” written by Ted Chiang, adapted for the big screen by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, and directed by Denis Villeneuve. I confess I never read the short story, but suspect I’d like it. It just didn’t translate to the silver screen terribly well. One could be forgiven for wondering how the aliens here illuminate the human experiences of grief, time, communication, and compassion, which are the central themes of the story. On the page, this may have been eloquently described, whereas on film, it cannot. How literal or faithful an adaptation it was, I cannot say, but my guess is, it was quite so. Too much so.
The story starts slowly with Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist and professor, and a mother grieving over the death of her daughter. If any early mention was made of a father, I must’ve blinked. Although he appeared, the situation wasn’t revealed until we had finally become involved in the aliens, which, frankly, was more intriguing.
Louise is teaching at the university in a big lecture room which is nearly empty. One of the few students ask her to turn on the TV, which she inexplicably does, and we learn there has been alien spacecraft landings in 12 cities worldwide. We then learn governments had made contact with the aliens, and that an army colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker) needs Louise to translate. She insists language is more than just that. The army reluctantly agrees to allow her on the site of the craft. Finally.
Once on site, Louise learns that every 18 hours, the aliens open a portal to their elliptical spaceship so the humans can enter and “talk” through a sort of giant aquarium. There was a modicum of tension as the first encounter unfolds. After, not so much.
The aliens earn the moniker “heptapods,” based on their appearance as giant octopuses with seven appendages, which have “hands” appearing like starfishes. Their verbal communication sounds like whale calls and their “written” language consists of large ideas inside ornamental circles. We watch a series of exchanges where Louise explains to her colleagues how to study language and she attempts to learn the aliens’. Somehow, it manages to get indexed into a sort of dictionary on her iPad. It’s a tedious watch, however, because one circle looks much like another if you’re human. Indeed, it would’ve been easier to watch tech geeks write computer code.
One of the disappointments of the film is that we don’t really follow how she does what she does, although we get “flashbacks” of her memories of teaching her child English. At one point, her daughter asks her for help in searching for a particular term. The two struggle to find it, and Louise realizes it was an expression the father had used: “not a zero-sum game.”
We do get to compare and contrast the way a theoretical physicist, Dr. Ian Connolly (Jeremy Renner), and Louise, a linguist, think about communication, however, but we only get glimpses of the two colleagues’ interactions, which doesn’t help the ending of the film.
The nations initially exchange information, but after an extended period, patience among the masses wears thin and pressure mounts to do something. At one point, the heptapods answer the question, “Why are you here?” “Use weapon” is the reply, but Louise correctly figures they really mean “use tool.” It’s an easy misunderstanding, even among humans.
The various governments shut down their lines of communications. We’re only given fleeting glances of the chaos and looting that ensues during the state of emergency, missing an opportunity to amp the story up a bit, especially in light of the fact that some of the nations confronting the aliens are enemies. Rogue soldiers plant explosives on board, but one heptapod leaves the area before detonation. The other pushes Louise and Ian out of the aquarium chamber. The two experience concussions and the spacecraft rises and then hovers overhead.
Louise and Ian somehow interpret the heptapods meant for countries of Earth to cooperate. China decides to retaliate against the aliens. Louise takes a shuttle to the spacecraft where the surviving heptapod tells her the other is dying. It also tells her the visions she’s been having, which we as an audience have seen as flashbacks are, in fact, the future, or what we should see as flash-forwards. The “tool” they talked about was their language, which changes time perception. The heptapod further tells her that in 3,000 years, they will need humanity’s help.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the camp is being evacuated and Louise has a vision of being thanked by a Chinese general for having phoned him and convincing him to call a halt to the attack on the aliens. Then, back to the present, where Louise actually makes the call to the general, hidden by Ian. Ian then expresses his love for Louise and asks her if she wants to make a baby, to which she agrees, even knowing her future daughter will die and Ian will leave her.
While we might chose to do something in life even if we knew it would have an unhappy ending, this was a cold ending and the film, depressing. While some critics claim it makes one think, I didn’t find the message profound enough to want to dwell on.
Perhaps part of the problem was that the heptapods were so difficult to relate to. While much could perhaps be conveyed about them with the written word, the camera was far less successful. More humanizing features would have done much to up the emotional stakes in this flick. Perhaps their experiences could more mirror human ones. As it was, we were left with a fairly sappy, sentimental emotional journey about romantic love, a weepy, melancholic one about parental love, and a dull, disjointed one about brotherly love. Outside of the time warp, it wasn’t altogether clear why the aliens were important to telling the story.
This film could’ve been much more. Sadly, it wasn’t.
I don’t rate with stars. Instead, I use the simple method of saying whether or not a flick was worth a Hamilton, or the price of a theater ticket.
This was not worth a Hamilton.