Arrival is one of those strange movies that you hear a lot about despite that fact that no one really talks about the movie itself. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand why. On the one hand, any discussion of the film’s critical plot points necessitates spoilers. On the other hand, any discussion of the underlying ideas beyond, “OMG, so smart”, would betray the fundamental stupidity of this movie.
I’m going to dissent from the closed mouth analysis of this movie and ruin both the plot and the precepts that underlie this movie. That can’t be done without copious spoilers, which I’m laying out on the table in the supreme hopes that I can dissuade you, dear reader, from wasting your time on this dullard in philosopher’s clothing. The hard part is not talking about the elephant in the room, it’s picking which of the three elephants to start with.
(And I’m not even including the elephant of Forest Whitaker’s presence making the film actively worse. The man is a charisma black hole, and how he continues to appear in big budget films is a mystery for the ages.)
First, the basic plot rundown. Aliens come to earth and hang out until Amy Adams deciphers their written language which grants her the ability to see through time. She uses that ability to stop the Russians, Chinese, and Pakistani’s from attacking the clearly superior tech of the aliens, who are called Heptopods because they have seven hand/feet/mouth/tentacle appendages. The gift of the magic aliens carries with it a curse, as it shows Amy that her marriage to Hawkeye will end in divorce and that their daughter will die of cancer, a fate she accepts because ‘tis better to have lived and lost etc.. Brilliant visuals combine with long, lingering wide shots and intensely personal close-ups of actors emoting so hard they almost break the camera to produce a film that allows the audience plenty of time to:
- consider the deep and multi-layered meaning of the ideas presented in Arrival,
- to huff their own farts and feel smug about how much better they are, as people, than the dullards in the next theater enjoying giant robots punching themselves amid an unfollowable storm of motion and noise.
- both of the above.
Language is probably the best elephant to start with. Aliens drop down to earth in twelve vessels that defy humanity’s understanding of physics. They cross the vast interstellar distances. They utilize some sort of reactionless driver to hover motionless over the earth. Their technology and their minds are so advanced that they can literally pierce the veil of time. And yet, they can’t assemble a simple Rosetta Stone for humanity. They struggle to communicate and leave the heavy lifting of translating language to the savages stuck at the bottom of one stellar gravity well?
One might argue that it is deciphering Heptapodian – not merely learning it – that grants Amy Adams the power of the oracle, and that the aliens can’t simply give humanity their language and expect results any more than Elon Musk could hand the plans for a hypertube to a naked Amazonian tribesman and expect them to build a hypersonic subway system. The film itself nixes that idea when Hawkeye theorizes early on about how, “Learning a language rewires the brain.”
The core relationship of the film occurs in the long, wistful glances from Amy Adams as she recalls better days with her dead-from-cancer-daughter…whoops – those are flash forwards! In a Shyamalan-esque twist, she was looking forward in time the whole time! Sigh. Which makes no sense.
There are rules to film. Rules about how people’s brains connect edits in a film to fill in gaps. Slow dissolves interspersed with shots of setting and rising suns indicate that time has passed. Shaky-cam conveys a visceral immediacy to action. A single figure filmed small and solitary against a vast backdrop conveys loneliness. Long and lingering shots of out of focus raindrops on the window of a vehicle driving through a rainy city while the latest trendy singer-songwriter warbles about life and pensive doubt conveys the presence pretentious independent filmmakers who aren’t above cheap and overused cinematography to pad their 70 minute film by 20 minutes so they can sell their product to a distribution company.
These aren’t my rules, they are diktats of how the brain works. You can play with these rules – and many films do so to great effect – but it requires a far defter touch than Denis Villenueve, the director, uses here. If you abandon the rules of cinematography, you need to do so in a methodical way that utilizes its own set of rules. It’s fine to make your audience wonder if something shown on screen is real if you want to show your character losing his grip on sanity, but you need to signal to the audience that this is what’s going on. Scenes generally progress in a linear fashion, but they don’t have to. Memento famously proceeds from back to front for the A-story and front to back for the B-story, but it establishes the rules of how this new game works. (The B-story is shot in black and white, for example, to distinguish it from the A-story.)
The fundamental conceit of Arrival is actually a fundamental deceit of the movie. Scenes presented in classic flashback mode early in the film are later shown to be flashforwards. The problem here is that Amy Adams’ character is shown to have flashforwards even before she learns Heptapodian. The early flashbacks are shown in classic movie flashback style, and are only later revealed to be glimpses of a future interspersed with the action for no definable reason.
But the fattest elephant of all is how Arrival and its fans take themselves so damned seriously. This film really wants to be smart, but it only ever achieves high-midwit status. It’s a film by pretty smart people who want to show how really smart people act, and it does a great job of showing how pretty smart people think really smart people act, but it does a lousy job of showing how really smart people actually behave. The red flag for me was the line explaining the genesis for the term, “Heptapod”. Really, really smart people wouldn’t need an explanation. They would use the term Heptapod and everyone around them would immediately understand. Really smart people use the simple explanation, “You know, sept meaning seven and pod meaning foot,” even for explaining the etymology of the alien name to dullards. This movie takes the odd tack of explaining via technical jargon, “Greek. Hepta. Seven. Pod. Foot. Seven Feet.” Because the movie is smart. And you’re smart. And that’s how smart people talk. Don’t you feel smart now?
I didn’t. I felt pandered to. Slightly insulted, actually.
But mostly, I felt sad. Arrival represents a missed opportunity. Hawkeye plays one of America’s foremost theoretical physicists, and early on in the film he argues that math is a better first step toward civilization than language. I have no flag in either camp, but when he brought that up, I literally sat up straighter in my seat. I thought we were going to get a lot of talk about how math is the first language – the universal language. How it doesn’t matter if your language is Bantu or English or cro-magnon or Klingon. One is always singular. The sequence of primes never changes. The area of a square made from the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is always as big as the sum of squares made from the legs. It’s not much to a layman, but to scientists raised in different solar systems, it’s the natural place to start. The failure of the film would take that conversation– the analysis of the language of self versus the language of math – seriously, struck me as a hugely wasted Chekhov’s gun.
Give them credit, the film is beautifully shot and the performances of the two leads are excellent. The core concept of struggling to understand both an alien mind and an alien language is fertile ground. The aliens and their written language are eerie, unsettling, and more alien than most of what passes for such these days. Even more impressive, the film tries mightily to fill that derth of slow and smart science fiction on the big screen in these days of giant robots punching each other in an impossible to follow storm of motion and noise*. It’s a welcome change from the usual science-fiction, and while the film fails to reach the lofty goals it set for itself, I can’t really fault the film-makers for trying.
My real beef is with the hordes of midwits that want to hold up enjoying this fluffy piece of B-movie wankery as somehow indicative of a more refined palate. Arrival isn’t smart, it’s carefully crafted mid-wittery slathered in a creamy pretentious sauce. You aren’t a bad person for liking the movie, but you aren’t particularly smarter for having watched it rather than the latest popcorn flick any more than you are a smarter person for reading the latest NPR book of the month darling rather than…oh, say this fine book right here:
*Yeah, yeah, I’m not above a bit of pretentious high-nosed snootery myself at times. At least I’ve got the intellectual firepower to move from insecure preening to ironic self-awareness.