Dec 10, 2016
I was bored from minute one. Is this a movie about language and communication, or is this a movie about predicting the future, or is this a movie about China and Russia being mean?
Arrival has some interesting stuff going for it. I liked the alien heptapods, which also look like hands and have elephant skin. Their language blooms like ink on water. They sound like basso profundo whales, slightly sad. I liked the thick, gel-like texture of their atmosphere and I liked Amy Adams, who does way too much with way too little. But the movie made no sense to me.
In science fiction movies the science better be buttoned up and understandable. You can't have characters espousing theories about language and half a second later you are communicating with the aliens without really explaining how. Showing a bunch of complicated graphics doesn't do the trick, and particularly not with language, since as opposed to applied mathematics, musical notation or nuclear physics, plain old language is something we all use.
It makes no sense to me that a linguist would try to communicate through written language with beings who grunt in stereo. First option would be sound, no? Music! Echoing their sounds. And the second would be images. A smiley face? Because that's how we started communicating back in the caves. Written language came much later.
Arrival, like other current pretentious sci-fi movies like Interstellar, suffers from ambitious metaphysics and phony, half-baked science that it cannot explain. It's a problem with the writing. People who write movies like this trust that the audience will not be too demanding and so they futz it up and think no one will care. Now, let me clarify. The science could be completely made up. Bugs Bunny could invent the science. As long as it is clearly established, we buy it, because those are the ground rules. But I never understood how we went to being baffled by the aliens' beautiful inky circles, to the word "weapon". How did that happen? And why that word? Showing people trying to solve problems in their head does not do the trick.
Worse, however, are the ultra-conventional, comic book clichés of the world being hostile and aggressive to these things (reminiscent of A War of The Worlds). Sure their spacecraft is scary, and sure the military should be involved, but I would think that NASA and the scientific community would be more important than some meanie from the CIA, of all places. There is a bad Chinese general and the Russians are dicks, and the Americans are not likable either (perhaps the one realistic touch). So poor Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are the only two scientists on Earth who can talk to these guys.
Meanwhile, I spent the entire movie thinking that it really works like a very benign metaphor for Donald Trump. If there is a scary alien that threatens to pulverize the world tweet by toxic tweet, he is it. The anxiety this movie creates about our inability to communicate echoes what is happening in the world right now. Sadly, it doesn't focus enough on the miracle of communication, which is what I thought it was about. At some point, it turns out that it is also about the ability to predict the future, and these two ideas are never explained or tied coherently. It feels like watching two different movies.
But my biggest disappointment is that I felt no sense of either suspense, wonder or awe, even if the aliens are conceptually interesting and there are a couple of mildly thrilling moments (one involving Amy Adams' hair). This movie made me pine for Steven Spielberg, who as shlocky as he can be, is truly a master at unleashing a sense of curiosity and wonder. And fun, for crying out loud! This movie is humorless.