Review: ARRIVAL

I am a spoiler junky.

Some of this is efficiency. We watch a lot of movies on Netflix (especially random horror films, which, despite the occasional work of genuine brilliance, tend to skew heavily toward disjointed, unintelligent wastes of time), and I want to know what I’m getting into before I invest my attention. With very few exceptions, good films are still good, even if the story’s surprises aren’t surprising. (I re-watched The Sixth Sense last year, and it’s still a lovely film, even knowing The Big Hook.) In contrast–well, let’s just say Wikipedia has saved me from many an emotional investment that would only have ended in annoyance.

My husband saw Arrival before I did. I had been curious about it; but one has to be careful with highly-anticipated science fiction films. So many of them are beauty without substance, or substance without plot. And I’ve really, really, really hated some that have received critical acclaim (*cough* Ex Machina *cough*). But I kind of love Amy Adams, and another SF film made from a short story–Edge of Tomorrow–is one of my favorites, so I had cautious hope.

And entirely out of character, I studiously avoided spoilers.

My husband gave me a spoiler-free review, which I won’t share here, because having seen it I pretty much concur with him, and I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say I’m kind of amazed I was able to avoid spoilers, because Arrival is one of those movies that you pretty much can’t discuss at all without spoiling something.

TL;DR: BIG, HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ARRIVAL. NO, REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING, BEGINNING-TO-END DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Two minutes into the film, I turned to my husband with tears on my face and demanded to know: “Is this a dead kid movie?”

“I’m saying nothing,” he replied.

Which was the right answer, because I worked very hard to avoid spoilers, and this is a spoiler that would have made me avoid the movie entirely.

Because yes, it’s a dead kid movie. I’d argue that Arrival is your basic dead kid movie stylishly wrapped in some SF tropes.

This is not to say the film doesn’t work. Overall, it works fairly well. Lots of dead kid movies work well. But Arrival basically uses alien invasion, linguistic misunderstanding, time loops and some fantasy bits masquerading as physics to wrap a story of Appreciating What You Have When You Have It, Even Though You Know You’re Going To Lose It And It’s Going To Be Like Having Your Guts Ripped Out Through Your Navel.

I wonder if the people who tell these stories have children, or if their children are grown and they just don’t remember.

I read Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when I was pregnant. I had no trouble getting through the book, but I remember wondering if I’d feel the same after my child was born. Answer: Nope, in so many ways. I saw Trainspotting when The Kid was 2, and I was shaking and weeping while Ewan McGregor was hallucinating a baby on the ceiling to the familiar strains of “Blue Monday.” We rented In The Bedroom (which is indeed a brilliant film) and I still get a knot in my gut when I think about it. We rented The Sweet Hereafter and sent it back unwatched because oh, hell, no.

So yeah, I have a visceral problem with dead kid stories, and you should probably take that into account when reading this review.

But I do think, fundamentally, Arrival‘s SF elements are primarily misdirection, and for me, that was a bit of a let-down. It’s not so much a science fiction film as a melodrama that uses time travel (more or less) to ratchet up the pathos. And all of the elements, both SF and melodrama, were fairly well-worn, no matter how beautifully they were presented.

The unique angle here (and what I suspect was the core idea in the short story, which I haven’t read) is the nature of the heptapod’s language, and how it affects Louise’s mind. I’m not a linguist, but I do remember learning French in school, and finding it affecting my facility with English. Most interestingly, though, was visiting my parents for the few years they were living in the Netherlands, and watching Sesame Street in Dutch. I knew zero Dutch, but after a few days I started understanding the show. Not a lot, and not in a translating-in-my-head way; but I started to get it. It was weird, and not at all the vocabulary-and-phrase-based learning that had been my only exposure to new languages.

It made perfect sense to me that Louise would be changed by learning the heptapod’s everything-all-at-once-forever language. And okay, fine, that change allowed her to somehow slip outside of time entirely and perceive it as a whole. But that nudges the movie toward fantasy territory for me, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it was another thing I didn’t expect.

The line between SF and fantasy is fuzzy and much debated. Most readers are happy to have psychic phenomena and faster-than-light travel in their SF, never mind current evidence that neither of those things is possible. I suppose there’s no reason I should draw the line at psychic phenomena, or at the idea that a human, born and existing in our four-dimensional world, should suddenly be gifted with extra-dimensional perception.

In this case, though, I think it bothered me because of my original problem: it’s all misdirection. The entire tale is a shaggy dog story explaining that personal tragedy is somehow worth it (and it’s spun as Louise’s tragedy, which indeed it is, but it’s also a tragedy for the kid, and the way it’s treated here tweaks a little bit of my women-in-refrigerators sensitivity). The story isn’t about alien invasion, or humanity discovering how to cooperate, or a (rather pointed) message about how incredibly stupidly we can act when we’re amorphously afraid.

The story is about how hideous tragedy can be offset by beauty and meaning. It’s not a bad message, but to have the whole thing circle back to that after aliens and betrayal and duplicity and weird language and Louise’s world-rescuing victory at the end is kind of a let-down.

My husband’s take was that Arrival is the kind of SF movie that people who don’t read much SF really love. That’s a tad harsh, perhaps, but I know what he means. The SF bits are pretty well-worn (there are a lot of opportunities to make the old Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” joke during this movie, even though it doesn’t go that way). And while the romance never gets in the way of the best parts of the story–and we all know, especially by the end, why it’s there at all–its inclusion felt jarring to me. When Louise and Ian meet on the helicopter, I was thinking “Oh, they’re doing this? How disappointingly ordinary.” (Y’all know how much I generally enjoy romance in my stories, but the setup here was unimaginative and clunky.)

“So, Liz,” I hear you ask, “was there anything you liked about this movie?”

Well, yeah. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Amy Adams, and I think she did a remarkable job here. It can’t have been an easy part to play. Louise is very self-contained, which is necessary, I think, to avoid revealing the entire plot from the start, and it’s hard to make a character like that compelling on screen. Adams reveals Louise’s character in gesture and reaction, and careful delivery of dialogue. There are some actors who can never quite disappear from a film, but I stopped thinking “Amy Adams” very early on in this movie.

And I think the reactions that various characters had to the aliens were well-drawn, even if the point being made was not subtle. Everyone is afraid, but for some curiosity wins instead of terror. And it makes perfect sense that a pack of soldiers would go AWOL, caught up in the idea of duty and dying for their country, based on no evidence apart from the vast amount of things they didn’t know. I also found believable–if unrealistic–the idea that one government standing down would be enough to get the others to follow suit.

And I liked the alien’s message: We’re helping you, because in the future you’ll help us and it’d be nice if you didn’t actually annihilate yourselves like a bunch of primitive jackasses before that happened.

Well, okay. The aliens didn’t say the bit about primitive jackasses. That’s me editorializing. But I think it comes to the same thing.

Rating time!

Execution: 9/10. I think both the beginning and the end could have been trimmed–the end in particular took far too long to sledgehammer the point home–but goodness, it was lovely.

SF elements: 7/10. The language angle was interesting, but the rest was tried and true (although very well drawn here).

Melodrama: 3/10. A bit too much stereotyping in the romance department, Ian ends up looking like a jerk for leaving his will-die-later daughter and his wife who then has to deal with it alone, and enough with the dead kid stuff, please.

That comes to 6-1/3 out of 10, which is probably a fair representation of my reaction to the film.

Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?