Arrival (2016)

[Warning:  Spoilers ahead!]

Arrival arrived with a slew of ecstatic reviews, praising its science, its emotional impact, its stars and almost everything else about it.  I almost feel embarrassed going against the flow on this one.

None of which changes the fact that I think this one fell flat.

Let’s be clear here:  this is a beautifully made film.  You have to admire the way the arrival of the aliens is introduced a little bit at a time, with our first glimpse of their ships coming when Amy Adam’s linguistic expert,  Dr. Louise Banks, finally arrives in Montana.  The mind-boggling difficulties of trying to communicate with something almost completely alien to us are portrayed in a way which manages to slip in a lot of very technical concepts without it becoming too painful for the average viewer:  believe me, that is incredibly hard to do, and few films have managed it half so well.  And like the best alien contact movies, it does manage to give it all the emotional weight needed to make it all work.

But it is the film’s final revelations which ultimately undermine the rest of the film.

Louise starts getting flashes of the future – which she uses first to translate the aliens’ message (by reading her own future textbook!), then to make a phone call she now remembers making that ends a world crisis!  There is a little talk about a (real) linguistic theory that when we learn a new language and start thinking in it, it shapes our understanding of reality, which leads to the ultimate revelation that, as the Hectapods have a non-linear concept of time, learning their language means that we start seeing the future.

Excuse me?

The notion is absurd.  It is one thing to argue that your language changes your perception of things.  It is something else altogether to argue that a new language will allow us to transcend the normal physical laws of our Universe.  Underneath it all, the film seems to be arguing that our minds can change reality – or perhaps that time appears to move constantly forward because that is the way we chose to perceive it – or perhaps that reality is an illusion we create when we all agree what it is.

Whatever.  It isn’t particularly believable, no matter which option you pick.  And yet, this has been the whole point of the film from the very beginning.  One wonders how it survived the first round of the notably cynical corporate approval process.  I suppose they uttered that magic word, “science”.

Oh, well.  These things happen.

And let’s face it:  it wouldn’t be such a letdown if Arrival wasn’t such a beautiful and strikingly well-made film.



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