First Thoughts: Arrival

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I always love the sense of awe and dread whenever I see giant space ships silently hovering over the Earth, humans helpless to stop them, unable to communicate with them, at the mercy of inhuman alien minds…and…

Arrival starts out right on target. Twelve enormous alien ships hover menacingly over the surface of the Earth, seemingly randomly spread out over the countries of the world.

As you probably expected, Science butts heads with Military as a gifted language expert Louis Banks (convincing played by Amy Adams) along with Sciency-Computer-Guy, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy “Hurt Locker” Renner) battle with Colonel Weber (Forest Whitiker, always a pleasure to see him) to have Just A Little More Time to try and understand the aliens.

I thought the struggle to understand the alien’s language was interesting and suspenseful, and the final reveal of how the aliens think and write was fresh and convincing, i.e., it was alien “enough” yet still made enough sense that it fit into the plot nicely.

And….then come’s the big reveal. The aliens “need” us to help them 3500 years in the future and want to give us the technology to be able to see time “as they do”, both the past and the future as part of a vast timeless vista. At least that was how I understood it. I guess I could buy that, but I just didn’t see why, since the aliens could see the future, they couldn’t see already whether they survive or not. Furthermore, can the change the future? If yes, then just do what you need to do NOW to fix things without having to mess with the humans. If they can’t change the future, that what the hell does it matter if they can see it or not. This part of the plot seemed to fall into the same messy knot of questions that all Sci-Fi films get tangled in once they introduce time travel/manipulation into the story.

I could have been fine with the shaky Time stuff, suspension of disbelief and all that, but the whole deal with the Louis’s daughter who dies in the future was unnecessary, in my opinion. It only added filler and served no purpose, in fact, the entire daughter character could have been left out of the plot and the outcome would have been completely the same. I feel it was just added for the Tear Jerk Factor to make the movie more palatable for those not as engaged with all the sciencey stuff.

So, OK. It was worth a rental and is surely worth seeing, at least for the first half when the humans are trying to understand the aliens and figure out what they want, and everything is spooky and weird and cool and it’s just perfect for yours truly.

Dennis Grisbeck (April 2017)

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And now let’s give Sean a chance to air his thoughts:

Arrival is a handsome science-fiction production with a good cast. It has a story pitched at adults and is blessedly free of shaky-cam and ADD editing. So I’m delighted with it, right? Wrong!

God I’m hard to please. Anyways, I didn’t hate it. But I don’t think its high-minded premise bears up under scrutiny. And Arrival doesn’t get its science-fiction vs. soap opera mixture right. There’s too much soap opera. I knew this would be the case right from the opening scenes, a heart warming montage about the joys and trials of raising a precocious child, which turns heartbreaking when said child dies tragically young from some terminal illness. I resent movies that hammer me over the head like that right out of the gate. I also noticed that all of the scenes set in the stunning millionaire’s home of the lead character played by Amy Adams (a linguist!) are under lit. This allows us to enjoy the sumptuous Pacific Northwest views through her floor to ceiling windows, but the tastefully understated interiors are always draped in shadows. Honestly, I don’t recall a single light source ever being turned on in that house. No doubt this echoed the absence of joy in her heart following the death of her young daughter. Ugh.

Back to the “main” story, which is the arrival of many strange and ominous looking alien ships hovering a few hundred feet above the ground at randomly scattered points around the globe. They are huge, resemble blocks from Stonehenge, and defy our understanding of physics. Needless to say, everybody is freaking out, and the silence of the occupants doesn’t help. Sure, they open a hatch into their ships at regular intervals. But then the huge and freaky looking squidzoid-beings just stand silently behind a transparent barrier, refusing to answer any questions or stating their intentions.

This is the set-up for your classic Scientists vs. The Military conflict. The scientists, led by Amy Adam’s linguist, want to work to understand the aliens and assume they are benign. The military, worried they are hostile, start pressuring the government to launch a pre-emptive attack. Various movie cues, like the sentimental opening, made it clear to me from the start that the scientists were right and the military was wrong. So even though the scenes where Adams and her team approach the seemingly menacing aliens are well staged, the movie held no real drama for me. The big question was, would the hostile paranoids of the world start a needless war, or would sweet reason prevail?

Spoiler Alert! Sweet reason prevails. Which is fine, but I was annoyed that the script never took the aliens to task for irresponsibly provoking a dangerous situation. They force our scientists to decode their language before they tell us anything about themselves. Imagine a different scenario where a late 19th century expedition meets a pre-industrial tribe of brown-skinned people. But members of the western expedition refuse to attempt any communication unless the locals figure out proper English all on their own. Tensions and fears rise, and several expedition members get attacked. Where would we place the primary blame for the ensuing violence?

The other big plot element is that the aliens know the future. It’s supposed to support a big affirmation of The Value Of Life. For example, one of the aliens dies after a bomb explodes. A bomb it knew would explode. The movie, to it’s credit, never has a character explain to the audience how this Christ-like sacrifice for the Greater Good is, well, Christ-like. But thinking back over the plot, I can’t see how explaining yourself and side-stepping the bomb wouldn’t have been just as good for all concerned.

It also turns out that Amy Adams’ daughter has yet to be born. Acquiring Future Sight from the aliens, she sees the whole story and decides to have the kid, despite knowing she’ll die from illness when only a teenager. Very inspiring. But did anyone think to ask the kid? No. Personally, my answer would be “no thanks!”

So alas, what looks at first like intelligent science-fiction turns out to be a dopey moral parable with a message of peace and fatalism. This annoys me because I’m not for fatalism. And while I’m all for peace, sentimental parables supported by arbitrary plots don’t really help the cause.

Sean Ledden (April 2017)

5 comments to First Thoughts: Arrival

  • As Sean pointed out, Amy’s character sure had a heck of a fancy house for being a linguist.

    But maybe she was a very cunning linguist…(ok, sorry about that one)

  • Guts3d

    I purposely skipped this one, as it reminded me of Carl Sagan’s “Contact”, that Sean so graciously reviewed here. It sort of parallels the religion / science dichotomy that
    fueled that movie, in my humble opinion. I can’t look at Jeremy Renner without thinking “Hawkeye” from the Marvel movies. I will fire up the old movie machine and watch
    this one and see with whom I agree more.

  • Sean Ledden

    I agree Dennis, the movie would have been better without the whole dying-daughter subplot. But it’s a major element, and I suspect it’s tied in with something Mr. Guts brings up: the religious message. That message, I suspect, is that we should fatalistically accept all the suffering that comes with life, and then to celebrate it as “good” because it’s part of “God’s Plan.” Ugh.

  • Maybe so. It also reminded me a bit of the young daughter in “Signs” and how she was leaving glasses of water all around the house even though she really didn’t know why.

  • Sean Ledden

    That’s an excellent comparison. (Barf!)

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