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.
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.
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.