Did I watch the same film as everyone else? Arrival

(spoilers ahead)


Not to be confused with The Arrival — starring Charlie Sheen

I’ve read a number of articles about Arrival and they all say something similar — this is a great movie. Most people who praise the film are saying things along the lines of “This is smart science fiction for people who are tired of explosions.” I am assuming this is targeted at the recent release of the Independence Day sequel (among other films).

One review in particular focused on the fact that this story is about a woman who uses her brain to save the world. What is not to like about this premise? A woman uses her brain (and no weapons) to save the world from an alien invasion! I wanted to love this move and sing its praises. Upon watching the film I had the depressing thought, “Did I just watch what everyone else did?”

I feel there are two major failings of Arrival.

Reason Number One: The premise of the film is excellent: aliens arrive, we make contact and realize we have to figure out how to communicate with them. Call in a linguist (with a scientist in tow) to figure out how to communicate before trying to ask the important questions. It’s a wonderful approach and makes sense and I’ve never seen it done in a film about aliens before.

Where the film falls apart, and the opening makes this clear, is that this movie is not about the interaction with the aliens. It is not about this process of learning to communicate, it’s not about the aliens at all, really. This is a movie about time travel.

When things go wrong and the world is on the brink of war/destruction/something bad our heroine is given the entire language of the aliens to decipher. In doing so she learns that understanding their language changes how a person perceives time. She no longer perceives time as linear but is able to move in and out of moments of her life. Effectively her consciousness is now able to travel through time.

So, and this is such incredibly lazy storytelling that I am amazed at the praise for this film, in order to save the day our heroine’s consciousness travels forward in time to ask General Shang what she did in the past to convince him from starting WWIII (I don’t mean to be flippant with that term, the stakes are global so I feel the term is not far off the mark). General Shang then tells her (in the future) what she did in the past to convince him to cease and desist so that her past self can then do this very thing. That the climax of this film boils down to “I just have to remember what I did in the future and do it now” should have had reviewers sharpening their knives.

Time travel doesn’t have to be overly complicated and burdened with quantum theory and paradoxes — because this is a movie. That being said when time travel is treated only as a means to move the plot forward it often feels unnecessary and unrewarding. The way it is used in Arrival is one step removed from employing the trope of “and then she woke up”.

Reason Number Two: The story being told is of how our main character, due to this change in her perception of time, is able to experience her future. What troubles me is that she makes an emotionally and morally complex decision about having a child with the knowledge of everything that will follow. What she does not do is inform her soon to be (husband?) romantic partner of this choice and that it will entail watching their only child die from an untreatable disease, until after they have had the child.

The father is not in any of the scenes from the future where the teenage daughter is dying in the hospital, or any scenes for that matter, so in a way he is spared this. I assumed that he was not in any of the future scenes because they are shown at the beginning of the film and therefore would give away the story — since everything hangs on the viewer thinking that her daughter dying happened before the events of the movie unfold. Perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps the character is incapable of living through what he knows is coming. Neither scenario seems tolerable.

Perhaps if you aren’t a parent this withholding of information is a minor issue. But imagine for a moment that you are in the shoes of Jeremy Renner’s character and try to imagine your significant other telling you that the child you had together is going to die of a terrible disease and that they knew this before you conceived the child. And now, when the child is seven or so, they have decided to tell you all of this. Perhaps I am overly sensitive but for me this turns Amy Adam’s character from a hero to something of a villian. This is an unforgivably selfish act, especially since this film is not concerned with rules pertaining to time travel (whether or not things can be changed — so that there is no debate as to whether her knowledge actually changes anything).

The voiceover in the beginning that only makes sense at the end of the film, that the aliens coming wasn’t an ending but a beginning…it all sounds really great and clever until you look at how she handles this information.

For me these were two major sticking points that took an interesting concept and turned it into an unpleasant and unrewarding experience. Forest Whitaker is criminally underused in the film. I was thrilled to see his name on the poster and upon seeing the film understood why he was in so little of the trailer. Jeremy Renner is in substantially more of the film but I’m not sure many have noticed as he is stuck firmly in second position.

Arrival has a great atmosphere and a unique premise. Ultimately using a storytelling device to cheat the audience of a proper resolution and handling the morally complex idea of having a child with someone and not telling them of the (known) horrors to come, makes this an unrewarding film.