Film review: Arrival (2016)


I just watched this critically acclaimed film and have to admit that I was highly disappointed. The central plot line is something that really appealed to me, as to how the world might react if spaceships were to suddenly arrive on Earth. What would the extra-terrestrials look like? What might their intentions be towards us? How could we communicate to find out? What science and technology do they have that enables them to overcome the massive barriers to interplanetary, let alone interstellar, travel that we face? This is a topic that is a staple of science-fiction writers, in classics like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

This film focuses mainly on the problems posed by the communication barrier. It seems to be insurmountable and how an expert linguist (played by Amy Adams) might approach this problem is interesting to see. But the key that unlocks this mystery and enables her to converse with them appears suddenly out of nowhere and with little explanation. I also found the way that the time dimension was treated, with the mixing of the past, present, and future, to be unconvincing.

These flaws could be compensated for by strong performances but I found those by the three main characters played by Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker to be curiously flat, with Whitaker particularly delivering all his lines in a mumbled monotone with an accent that was hard to understand. The members of the supporting cast were also weak, especially the guy who thinks that the work of Adams and Renner to understand the visitors is a waste of time and is convinced that we are at war not only with the visitors but also is hostile to the Russian and Chinese governments. The direction also seemed plodding.

There was also the annoying appearance of a familiar science-fiction cliché that is routine with films about visiting extra-terrestrials, and that is the decision taken by somebody on Earth that the visitors must have hostile intentions and that we need to attack and destroy the spaceship. Really? You have clear evidence of beings that have a vastly superior science and technology to our own, that can appear and disappear out of the air and can communicate by means that we cannot detect, and can even counter gravity, and you think that they would not be able to defend themselves against our puny weaponry, let alone unleash a devastating counter-attack? It should be clear to the meanest intelligence that the best option is negotiations. They clearly don’t need us but we could learn a lot from them.

But as I said, the critics seem to love it and it is up for eight Academy Awards, including best film and best director, so I am clearly an outlier in being unimpressed.

Here’s the trailer.

Comments

  1. Owlmirror says

    But the key that unlocks this mystery and enables her to converse with them appears suddenly out of nowhere and with little explanation.

    I thought that the film tried to show that was the result of long, painstaking effort — but actually showing that would have taken too long, so they used a montage, where perhaps the sense of how much time and effort it was taking was diluted.

    I also found the way that the time dimension was treated, with the mixing of the past, present, and future, to be unconvincing.

    I thought it was problematic in terms of making sense (as I do most SF time-travel stories), but I was able to suspend my disbelief.

    There was also the annoying appearance of a familiar science-fiction cliché that is routine with films about visiting extra-terrestrials, and that is the decision taken by somebody on Earth that the visitors must have hostile intentions and that we need to attack and destroy the spaceship. Really? You have clear evidence of beings that have a vastly superior science and technology to our own, that can appear and disappear out of the air and can communicate by means that we cannot detect, and can even counter gravity, and you think that they would not be able to defend themselves against our puny weaponry, let alone unleash a devastating counter-attack? It should be clear to the meanest intelligence that the best option is negotiations.

    Sigh. This bothered me, too, but given the current political situation, I am actually less disbelieving of it now than I was when I saw it.

    I mean, I would have said that it should be clear to the meanest intelligence that Donald J. Trump is, was, and always has been a dishonest and incompetent fraud with narcissistic and sociopathic traits, and that most people would see this and he would lose the presidential vote by a landslide — and yet here we are.

    Here we are.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano, I recommend reading the short story on which the film is based, “Story of Your Life“. The link was supplied by Owlmirror in a thread about this movie over at Marcus’ place.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but any quibbles I might have had about the time “problem” were easily overcome by Chiang’s writing. His physics was not bad for sci-fi, especially in his use of the principle of least action to explain the aliens’ perception of time.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    You have clear evidence of beings that have a vastly superior science and technology to our own, that can appear and disappear out of the air and can communicate by means that we cannot detect, and can even counter gravity, and you think that they would not be able to defend themselves against our puny weaponry, let alone unleash a devastating counter-attack? It should be clear to the meanest intelligence that the best option is negotiations.

    It’s obvious to you, therefore you think it should be “clear to the meanest intelligence“. I think you underestimate human stupidity.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    I also found the way that the time dimension was treated, with the mixing of the past, present, and future, to be unconvincing.

    ** SPOILER ALERT ** Time perception is a major part of the plot. The interspersing of past, present, and future is completely at home within that framework. You might disagree over the possibility of that major plot point, but it all fits.
    If you are looking for a comparison to classic science fiction, you might refresh your reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

    You might not agree that all the ideas were convincing, or successfully presented; but I would hope you would appreciate that the film actually was based on ideas, not just explosions.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    richardelguru #1: Linguists LOVED it

    Surprise, surprise, linguists love movies about linguists.
    In another shocker, Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. That’s why La La Land got so many Oscar nominations.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    But as I said, the critics seem to love it and it is up for eight Academy Awards, including best film and best director, so I am clearly an outlier in being unimpressed.

    And what is the competition? Let’s stick to science fiction. How many science fiction movies this year…
    No, that’s too hard. How many science fiction movies of the last five years were based on serious ideas and not just ‘splosions?

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    I went over and read Marcus’ review. Pleased to see the shout out to Slaughterhouse-Five.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Owlmirror @#2 and Rob @#3,

    Thanks so much for the link to Ted Chiang’s short story. I very much enjoyed it, more than I did the film, actually. I am not sure if I would have enjoyed the film more if I had read the story first. I generally feel that each genre of storytelling should be self-contained and that it fails as art if one depends on the other to be fully realized.

    Although physics takes a secondary role to linguistics in the story, there were some interesting physics discussions in the short story that have relevance to my forthcoming book because they provide exampled of points that I make in my book about the nature of scientific knowledge. I am planning to add a sentence or two and a citation.

  9. says

    I liked Arrival, but I think the movie Slaughterhouse Five dealt with the shifting prospective of time better. (I have yet to read the book, so I can’t judge it.)

    I also agree that violence against an interstellar race would be foolish. The best you could hope for is that they decide that dealing with our primitive weapons isn’t worth the reward of what they want from our planet. A Vietnam/Iraq situation for them.

    I liked it as break from the summer blockbusters, but I do see the flaws you pointed out.

  10. Bob Curtis says

    The plot hinges on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or, I should say, on an overstatement of an overstated hypothesis. Another treatment of this was in Samuel R. Delany’s book “Babel-17”. Still, I really enjoyed the movie.

  11. starskeptic says

    The only problem with the linked-to PDF version of “Story of Your Life“ is that the illustrations are missing – “Stories of Your Life and Others” on Amazon is only 10 bucks and includes them.

  12. fentex says

    Ted Chiang, from who’s short story “Story Of Your Life” Arrival is drawn writes very good SF.

    I was interested to hear people liked the movie, although I couldn’t imagine myself how one would make an engaging movie of such an intellectual exercise.

    I saw it last weekend and, meh. Good effects but I found it unengaging and didn’t really think the central idea [spoilers] that learning the Heptapods language involves changing perceptions of time and the growing realisation that the narrators story is confusing the order of events they relate was sold very well.

    There was very little about how the exercise of learning changed the student and it made up very little of the story.
    I was disappointed.

  13. says

    Mano Singham@#4:
    It’s a question of aesthetics so there’s no argument to be had. It would be like disagreeing over pizza toppings!

    A few things: I mostly enjoyed the visuals and the theme music. And, having just watched “Batman VS Superman” it probably would have seemed like an amazing movie just because it lacked Ben Affleck. I agree with many of your points and was especially disappointed by Forest Whittaker’s performance. My take on that was that Whittaker was told he was playing a silent warrior type and so he did.

  14. Friendly says

    The plot hinges on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or, I should say, on an overstatement of an overstated hypothesis. Another treatment of this was in Samuel R. Delany’s book “Babel-17”.

    I attended a panel inspired by the movie at Philcon in Philadelphia this past November; Samuel R. Delany was on it. The panelists basically agreed that while “Arrival” is thought-provoking, its entire premise fails because the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is false.

  15. secondtofirstworld says

    @Owlmirror:

    I’d have been confused with the past as well… had there been any.

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    Except the director of La La Land took this long to make it because he did not budge to studio demands. Hollywood likes it, that the end product turned out to be praising, which is what they polish, not because they made it. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/just-the-wind-berlin-film-review-291884 He was the director of the Womb, and the government hated Just the Wind, they even took out ads urging people not to see it as it presents the country in a bad light. Cue the Berlinale, and suddenly they loved the film, they took out ads how they sponsored it, everyone should talk about such horrendous acts… so it wasn’t a water is wet thing.

    @Marcus Ranum:

    I’ve enjoyed your review, and have discovered, that we also share a positive image about Musashi, so it’s not like I’m always out to contradict your points, there I said it.

  16. Susan Ferguson says

    I was pretty disappointed with Arrival as well. I didn’t buy the concept of a language that can see through time, I thought the writing looked like coffee stains, I can suspend my disbelief but they really have to sell the idea and Arrival didn’t do that for me. Amy Adams’ performance is the one that didn’t work for me, didn’t mind Forest Whittaker so much, I’m surprised this movie got the accolades that it did. It’s a beautiful film, but it felt too airy and new-agey to me. I feel like the odd one out, everyone else I know who saw it loved it.

  17. Peter Zachos says

    Finally, someone else who was as disappointed as I am. I cannot understand the hype surrounding Arrival. Well, to some degree I can, but it’s undeserved. I too found the performances flat, and frankly the script was weak overall. Top it off the with tremendously over-licensed Max Richter track droning on and on and on and on and on and on and on toward the end, replacing experienced film scoring with “THESE FOUR CHORDS ARE PROFOUND AND SAD AND YOU SHOILD FEEL THAT WAY”, and you have a recipe for boredom.

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