William R Blackford, 128 YinD
I find myself once again in the position of having watched a highly praised film and walking away feeling disappointed. Arrival currently has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
So here I am once again to tell you all why the movie you liked isn’t good, even though you never asked.
Let’s start with The Bad.
Bad Science Fiction
As a friend of mine once said; science fiction isn’t a genre, it’s a setting. We have dramas, horror movies, and comedies set in a science fiction universe, in the future, in space, etc. The problem for me comes when someone intends to make a drama or suspense film, and the science fiction is merely an add-on, a tertiary concern, or a device for telling that story. As a pretentious reader/watcher/player/consumer of science fiction since the tender age of ten, this concerns me. It becomes especially disconcerting when audiences praise such a movie for being good science fiction.
Arrival may be a passable drama, but it is bad science fiction.
Part of what makes science fiction good is that it is believable. The audience has to believe that this kind of thing could actually happen. That is part of what makes science fiction compelling. Of course, there are exceptions where absurdity rather than plausibility is the point (Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), or the setting is so far in the future so as to make it magical, but Arrival is set firmly within the world that we inhabit. Aside from the aliens, everything is mundane.
The entire premise of the movie’s twist is based upon one idea; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity. As
plot-device character, Ian Donnelly conveniently sums up for the audience, “If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.” In short, the hypothesis as it is given in the film proposes that learning a language fundamentally changes the way you think and see the world.
It sounds like the same kind of popular science drivel you would read in big yellow letters on the cover of a magazine at the checkout counter. The kind of factoid that freshmen college students share in class to sound intelligent before the professor steps in and makes it clear that they have no idea what they’re talking about. The kind of thing that people take in and regurgitate as a fact without ever bothering to find out of it’s actually true. Just like the hundreds of movies that are based on the “We only use 10% of our brains,” myth that we all know is bullsh-t by now (Limitless, Lucy), Arrival gives us dumbed-down, popular science myths for a premise.
Not surprisingly, the real research is less clear and less conclusive than Arrival would have us believe and isn’t even accurately attributed. The surprise of the twist covers up just how unbelievably silly it is. Learning a language made of circles lets you see the future. Right. As linguist Betty Birner says in this Slate article, “they took the hypotheses way beyond anything that is plausible.”
So, you take a somewhat-true scientific idea and you build an entire movie off of it. Not only that, you stretch the idea beyond anything it was ever intended to apply to and go straight from A to Z while skipping all the letters in between. I don’t know if that’s good storytelling, but I do know it’s poor science fiction.
Now, the sad part. This device works because audiences allow themselves to be treated as stupid. Scripts and concepts are dumbed down to appeal to more people — and that’s fine. That’s how you sell a movie, spread a message, get your movie made in the first place, etc. We are not then obligated to sit around and praise it for being an intelligent movie when it clearly is not.
You can see this most clearly when we are spoon-fed the ending. The last ten minutes feels like the filmmakers are teaching us how to walk, making sure we understand all the implications, the “oh-so-complex” science fiction premises. They walk us through to the end and turn down to us and say, “Now wasn’t that cool?!”
Just like Interstellar before it, the writers have shown us that their grasp on the scientific principles behind their fiction is weak at best, and intentionally fabricated for mass consumption at worst.
The Dumbing Down of Good
Movies like Arrival get praised for being good because they explore concepts that lie ever so slightly outside of the Hollywood norms. Because of this, people think these concepts are new, edgy, and fresh. In reality, movies like Arrival are barely skimming the surface of well-established and (more expertly) explored themes from thousands of science fictions stories before them.
Arrival is only good inside a vacuum where Hollywood blockbusters are the only form of entertainment. This isn’t Arrival’s problem alone, but it certainly shows all of the symptoms and does little to try and overcome them.
Arrival wants so badly to be taken seriously. It wants so badly for us to look at it and say “Oh, wow! A movie about something new! Aren’t you special?” It gives us concepts that it assumes we have never explored or thought about before.
Allow me to illustrate with an example. One of the many tropes within the film is The Unlikely Chosen One. Louise is chosen for this unprecedented, world-shattering opportunity because…she has security clearance? Because people with weaker constitutions failed? Last resort? It’s not entirely clear. The problem, though, is that Louise isn’t actually special at all, but for the entirety of the movie the writers are trying to make us think she is.
The concepts that Louise teaches Colonel Weber about linguistics, the pearls of wisdom that are supposed to be the fresh, new perspective, are things that every single TCCS volunteer in Thailand already knows. You have to teach a language step by step. One word can mean many things. You have to clarify a concept before you move onto the next one. These concepts and ideas are not ground-breaking, they’re not hard to figure out, they’re not the exclusive purview of some young, special linguist.
We are being spoon-fed tripe as if it is deep wisdom. The writers take something from just below the surface and offer it to us as something knew. The problem is that anyone who has ever looked beneath the surface knows that it’s still shallow and incorrect. If one of the reasons that Arrival is “good” is that it is different, then it’s not actually good because we’re not actually looking at something different.
Is simply not being Fast and the Furious 8 what makes a movie good? Being slightly less than completely devoid of intelligence is the bar we’re setting for good movies now? For Oscar nominees?
This complaint is simple but important. Tropes are a necessary, unavoidable part of making a movie. Certain things need to be communicated through widely understood concepts that don’t require a lot of exposition because they are already well-understood by the audience and well-established within the cultural sphere.
That being said, if I have to watch one more scene in an alien-related movie about the interactions between a peace-loving scientist and a hawkish, pragmatic general I am going to retire from cinema forever. It’s tired, it’s old, it’s done, done, done. That isn’t to say you can never use it, but so much of what happens in Arrival revolves around it. They spoon-feed us a dumbed-down version of game theory and let it ride on the back of this trope, guiding the story to its boring, ticking-time-bomb-like ending.
Worst of all, it is not done in any kind of interesting or new way. It is the same, rehashed crap we have seen in every movie involving aliens and military generals since the beginning of time. It’s boring.
Unrealistic Even In Its Own Fictional Context
Just like the top-secret government agent leaving his super-duper satellite phone on a random, unattended table during a base-wide evacuation, Arrival relies way too much on stupid, silly, unlikely scenarios and progress its story.
Unbelievable things are allowed in a science fiction setting — that’s part of the point. However, the world within which Arrival’s story takes place is, apart from the intervention of aliens, entirely mundane.
The idea that a small splinter cell of four ordinary soldiers could steal ordinance and plant it on an alien ship at one of the most secure military sites in the world is insane. I don’t care if there are unicorns and elves walking around in this fictional world — that would still be unbelievable.
It’s also yet another trope. The Aliens with technology that we can’t even comprehend traveled across the galaxy to come to us, but our primitive weapons will totally work against them trope. More grist for the mill.
That Line, Though: “You wanna make a baby?”
There’s nothing wrong with cheesy sentimentality in and of itself, but let’s not pretend that it isn’t cheesy sentimentality by trying to construct complex reasons why it needed to be in there. It didn’t.
The entire movie reeks of determinism. The future that Louise is seeing before she even knows what it is, and that we were shown at the beginning of the movie, has already happened. That’s the point. Louise made the choice to have a daughter knowing that she would die, and we always knew she would make that choice, because we are watching an entire movie where she has already made it. Time is cyclical in this world. That is the concept of time that Louise has inherited from the heptapods. Therefore, the concept of time we are dealing with in Arrival is one in which the future cannot be changed. Louise is always seeing the future that she would have chosen no matter what. The world she sees in her future when she speaks with General Shang has already happened. The events that we see have already occurred in her future, after meeting Ian, talking to the aliens, saving the world. We do not need to be shown this to understand it.
More spoon-feeding, more treating the audience like they’re stupid. Why make the ending concrete at all? Why not let the audience wonder whether or not Louise will decide to have her baby if there is any uncertainty (which there isn’t)?
If the reason for having that cheesy line in the movie is to illustrate her choice, then it was in there for no reason, and the same sentiment could have been conveyed by any number of superior lines. “I forgot how good it felt to be held by you,” is a far superior line, in my opinion. I guess they just couldn’t resist nailing the hammer home, though.
A Little Bit of Good
While the camera pans up the dark, stony hallway imbued with artificial gravity as human forms in space suits walk towards the white rectangle in the distance with obvious trepidation, I can’t help but be reminded of the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are hints of Kubrik’s masterpiece all over the first half of Arrival (the alien ships may as well be monoliths, both in style and function, but that’s a story for another day), and I really appreciated the homage.
The film feels dark, heavy, and moody in all the right ways. The aliens and their ship are properly mysterious and ooze a sense of unknown danger (though I do think the aliens looked kind of silly and maybe shouldn’t have ever been actually seen) that helps give the film gravity.
I also really appreciated how time is sliced up from a narrative perspective. I felt as if we could take all of the time slices from the future-visions, splice them together in chronological order, and they would totally make sense as a standalone product. That is impressive, I must admit. They also did a really good job of throwing us off the scent early on and keeping their twist from being too obvious near the beginning of the film. The two stories exist as one, separate yet the same, future and present intertwining seamlessly.
Amy Adams’ performance is wonderfully brooding and troubled, but I would expect no less from her. She portrays Louise with a timelessness that is essential to the character and the story and she pulls it off masterfully.
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with science fiction and film will see nothing new or interesting about Arrival. Most of the good cinematography goes out the window once the ticking clock starts and we are spoon-fed the ending.
Most of the good things about it have been done before, and most of what seems new are merely borrowed from lesser known products. Pop-science factoids are raised up to the status of universal laws to reach far-fetched conclusions.
My biggest complaint with Arrival is that it is yet another movie where the writers clearly think their audience too stupid for more complex themes and ideas. Worst of all, Arrival gets undue praise for its shallow exploration of its themes that are not nearly as profound as they want us to think they are, effectively lowering the bar once more.
Instead of rating Arrival on a stars or thumbs system, I’ll simply end with the phrase I heard and agreed with after seeing it with friends;