I was really looking forward to it, especially after the Good Doctor™1 enthused so greatly about it. But, during and after seeing it last night, I realised that Arrival is a very poor piece of work indeed, and this is for five reasons, most of which involve spoilers2
- It is INERT. There is no dramatic progression. The movie just hangs there, like one of the aliens’ pebble space craft (seemingly carved out of larva). The major conflict, in the first half of the movie at least, is what is Forest Whitaker going to be able to say to his (clinical) supervision team? We are told that Louise and Ian (Adams and Renner) are brilliant people, but as alway in popular films, we never see them being brilliant, other than that beloved trope of Hollywood, the dawning realisation close-up. It is inert because it wants to trumpet that most impossible of sci-fi clichés, the wickedness of a linear understanding of time – and because all time, space, events are present, here and now, there is no engagement with an audience which is, unforgivably, sitting in a theatre and watching the movie spooling out chronologically, linearly.
- It is PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNBELIEVABLE. How does a human being deal with the psychological trauma of being able to see the whole of their life laid out before them, expect to be able to make choices, to get out of bed in the morning, to decide on whether to have coffee or pancakes for breakfast? If it has all happened, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters then what is the point of living? The only psychologically convincing response to such an experience is madness or annihilation.
- Louise Banks is not a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown right from the moment she arrives in Montana – we can tell this because of her furrowed brow and her stumbling walking. This is a woman in crisis. And she is both the only woman and the only person in crisis. Jeremy Renner is reduced to being concerned, good natured, and aw-shucks in the background. It is Louise who has the intuitive (feminine?) break-through as to the nature of the aliens’ language and thought-processes, and she does that by being semi-hysterical for 3/4 of the movie. And if language rewires brains, why is she the only one given eldritch insight into the future? Dr Ian seems to be as adept in interpreting the logograms as she is, so why doesn’t he have an insight? Oh, that’s right he does: that Louise (as a woman to fall in love with) is more interesting and significant than alien encounters – first contact becomes the background and means to hooking up, the world’s most expensive Match.com encounter.
- Unforgivably, it is another example of KILLING OFF A CHILD TO VINDICATE AN ADULT. Louise’s daughter dies in the first five minutes of the film, and then grows, and is cute, and says portentous things, and dies, over and over again through the movies. It is an egregious example of the Plot Moppet trope, the child that only exists to propel the plot (such as it is in this film) and to “grow” the adult protagonists (see also Nic Cage’s execrable film Family Man.). And calling the girl “Hannah” to flag up and justify the time-scheme? Really, why didn’t they just call her “Visual Aid No. 1”?
- (See what I did there?) It tells us that the UNIVERSE IS ALL ABOUT HOW WE FEEL ABOUT OURSELVES. It doesn’t tell us anything new compared with the (not so) great sci-fi films of the past: Solaris (both versions) or Contact or The Day The Earth Stood Still. Aliens come from out of a clear blue sky, and humanity, forced to work together, overcome all divisions, until, in this instance, the Chairman (?) of the People’s Liberation Army gets to whisper sweet nothings in Amy Adams’s ear. If Contact was the rearrangement of the cosmos to deal with Jodie Foster’s daddy issues, and Interstellar was The Railway Children in space, then Arrival is daughter issues over a static, furrowed and frankly unengaging hour and a half of cruelly chronological time.
Sigh. When will we get another sci-fi film that really does deal with what might be, rather than ways we can feel better about ourselves and our choices?