Did you know Arrival earned eight Oscar nominations? It even won an Oscar for best sound editing. It’s nice to see Hollywood take a sci-fi film seriously for once, even if the film they take seriously was one carefully crafted to make kind of smart people feel smarter than they really are. Again, this is a fine movie, and hopefully Hollywood takes its success seriously and decides to make more movies like it. The world could use more slow-burn sci-fi that reaches for the intellectual stars. Throw enough on screen and we may eventually see a film as smart as Arrival pretends to be.
In yesterday’s analysis of this film I left out an important observation about how the resolution of the central mystery of Arrival kills the suspense of the “big actiony final boss fight”. If you’ve seen the film, then you know that the quotes in that description underscore the irony of it. There is no big action boss fight. The climax of the film comes about when Amy Adams uses her oracular powers to convince the Chinese military to stand down and not attack the alien starship parked overhead. Unlike most sci-fi films, it does not end with two men punching each other on top of a tall building or one super-powered man punching a horde of mooks. It’s just a conversation.
It reminded me of the ending of Sum of All Fears, in which the dumbest looking Jack Ryan must convince the Russian Premier not to nuke Washington even though Washington is seconds away from nuking the Kremlin. The climax is just one person on a phone trying to convince another person to trust them. I like that. It’s great to see that sort of contest of wills decide the fate of the world. It’s a welcome change from the usual…but it doesn’t work in this case, specifically because it has already been revealed to us that the phone call was/will be successful.
Telegraphing the ending of the film (the Chinese back off, Amy Adams marries Dr. Jeremy Renner, and Amy Adams gives birth to a cancer-doomed daughter) completely sucks the suspense out of that phone call. It’s the time travel paradox that nobody talks about – usually people talk about the in-fiction paradox, rather than the practical writing problems of time-travel.
A few movies have split the time-travel baby to good effect. Twelve Monkeys shows the end bereft of meaning, and the mystery is how Bruce Willis gets to that ending. Looper presents the future as one of two possibilities and the suspense arises from how the actions of today will determine which future will come to pass. Hot Tub Time Machine demonstrates that actions in the movie-present do have significant effects on the future and explicitly states that the characters are re-writing the future with every action they take. That’s a much better way to maintain the tension of the plot than broadcasting the ending early, and doing so over schmaltzy music and slow mo shots of undersaturated film to help congratulate the viewer for being smart enough to deduce the exposition-heavy dialogue and visuals.
That’s right, I said it, and I’m not wrong. Hot Tub Time Machine handles time travel better than Arrival. At least from a storytelling and suspense perspective.
So you know, take that into consideration when you think about Arrival.