The reviews for the new science fiction film ARRIVAL have been uniformly over-the-top, calling it “one of the year’s best films” (THE DAILY SUN) and a “poetic vision” (THE GUARDIAN) and its star, Amy Adams, “spectacular” (USA TODAY). According to a consensus of the critics (and many young filmgoers), director Denis Villeneuve has created an SF masterpiece on the order of 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A THIRD KIND, bringing us a vision of alien first contact that somehow avoids the destruction of major landmarks and lots of things blowing up.
That much I will concede. Bravo for him on that score. ARRIVAL is not your run-of-the mill pop(corn) culture SF-by-way-of-comic-books film. And because we see so much of that kind of mindless fare in the multiplex and so little grown-up science fiction, we are inclined to fall all over ourselves to praise an effort that gives us something to sink our intellectual teeth into. INTERSTELLAR comes to mind.
And like that film, ARRIVAL was a huge disappointment to me. I know I might be the only one, and I might very well catch holy hell for explaining why the film let me down. But when has that ever stopped me, faithful readers?
The audience of this film is asked to take many things on faith from the beginning—to go with the flow, so to speak. Okay, I’m a reasonable person, a science fiction fan and a long-time film lover with a deep catalog of movie knowledge to draw on. If you show me that twelve gigantic orange-segment-shaped alien spaceships have arrived to hover inches above the surface of the earth in various middle-of-nowhere spots around the world, remaining impregnable and incommunicado despite all our initial attempts to contact them, I’ll go along. I may even believe you when you say the ships open at certain intervals every day for humans to go inside, though I’ll start to squirm in my seat.
I’ll endure what appears to be backstory on your main character, a linguist teaching at some obscure college (Amy Adams), but I’ll begin to have real questions when it turns out she is the only one in the United States deemed capable of communicating with the alien creatures. Just her. Not a team of linguists, with computers and mathematicians and psychologists and cross-cultural specialists. No. Just one obscure linguist from a small college somewhere in the Northwest.
Oh, yeah. There’s a physicist (Jeremy Remmer). You’d think there would be a few, because, you know, we might like to know where these aliens came from, but, no. There’s just one, and a few random generals and guys in white coats who do things that aren’t spelled out. The physicist holds up signs for the linguist once she begins to communicate with the aliens.
If this set-up begins to smack of Mary Sue, then the plot soon becomes redolent of it. Because, of course, though our heroine is not the only linguist to figure out how to communicate with the aliens (there are other teams working with the other alien ships around the world), she is the only one to figure out the all-important question of why they have come. The poor physicist is just a bystander (in more ways than one, it turns out). Given Amy Adams’s performance as Lois Lane in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN (see my review here), she may be forever associated with Mary Sue in my mind after this film.
But here is where it becomes very difficult to argue about ARRIVAL without giving away the M. Night Shyamalan-type core of the film. Without spoiling it, let me just say that the science fiction elements are simply an elaborate construct for delivering an emotional message. That’s not unusual; the best films do it. The best science fiction stories do it, too, whether they are written for the page or for the screen. Unfortunately, the message conveyed here was summed up a century and a half ago by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Even if we're not talking about romantic love. Even if the other person doesn't have a choice in the matter.
Which is to say, really? All this novel buildup about aliens and first contact and other deep things (which shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the plot) to arrive at this much-visited emotional destination? Yes, the central theme of the film poses an interesting moral dilemma, but it has nothing to do with aliens. It’s a very human dilemma—and it’s nothing new.
I just can’t help thinking this is a long, though admittedly scenic, trip taken for nothing--and not just because I don't agree with the outcome. For those of you who need a special reason to go to the multiplex, my recommendation is to stay home and wait for pay-per-view. ARRIVAL is a NO-GO.