Friday, November 18, 2016

A LONE VOICE OF DISSENT ON ARRIVAL




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.

Cheers, Donna



10 comments:

  1. Thanks, Donna. I hope to go see the movie this weekend. I'll keep your thoughts in mind. Though we certainly don't always agree on our movie tastes, I'm with you on Interstellar being a bit of a disappointment. I have high hopes for Arrival, hoping it might put an interesting spin on Contact meets Close Encounters. Let's see how it fares.

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  2. What a shame. I shall wait (on the edge of my seat) for Rogue One.

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  3. Having been bored to tears by Interstellar, I wasn't all that interested in Arrival from the get go, so will wait until it comes on TV (or when hubs insists I watch the DVD like he did with Interstellar). Like Greta, I have my hopes pinned on Rogue One as my own personal film of the year (and after listening to the director and cast enthuse about it at Star Wars Celebration). ^_^

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  4. LOL, Laurie, you're right that we often disagree about SF films. I'll be interested to get your take on this one. It's certainly different, and deserves a thoughtful viewing. But, Greta, I have to agree with you that I came out of the theater thinking just what you expressed. Lots of potential wasted. And, Pippa, I didn't even mention the slow pace of the film--how did you know? :)

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    1. *reads own comment* I may need more coffee this grey Sunday morning - I can't see where I had that masterful insight, lol. But TBH with that kind of film I would expect a slow build along the lines of Interstellar, the start of Prometheus (never watched past the exploration inside the alien building because of the aliens), 2001 etc. That flavour of SF always seems to have a slower pace. The trailer also gave that impression, along with your mention of the heroine's back story. And I must admit these days I like to get into some action pretty quickly these days - I prefer to read for deep thought type SF but something fast and visually impressive when it comes to films. That said, it's sad if an opportunity was missed for some deeper meaning. I do prefer emotional impact - a big reason I prefer SFR over straight SF these days.

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  5. Okay, Donna, this time I think we're in total agreement. I saw it last night. My feelings (and I'll try to avoid any major spoilers here) is that they had a terrific story that got terribly watered-down by character "history" (that would be too spoilery to spell out) and a troubling split in focus. I also think the score was overdone to the point it interfered with the story by artificially setting a very dark tone. I had the same issue with Interstellar.

    The basic premise was outstanding, and if they could have taken that thread and run with it to make it more of a SF/R mystery-thriller with international implications, I feel it would have had a much greater impact on the audience than all the loose ends left for the sake of the emotional side-issue that eventually became what the movie was all about.

    Pluses: Huge kudos to ARRIVAL for creating aliens that truly were ALIEN--in thought, communication and motivation--and for the themes of striving to understand the nearly incomprehensible, with some intense drama early on. Loved the disorienting factors of the "ship." Loved the plot twist with the alien "language." But overall the emotionally depressing noir treatment left me feeling very let down. IMHO, it was a tremendous sci-fi idea with a killer twist, but they had no clue how to effectively pull it off.

    As we were leaving, I heard another viewer mutter, "What a waste." Yeah. That.

    That said, I recognize that not all viewers look for the same emotional experience at the cinema. For those more interested in dark human emotional drama in the face of the unknown, this may be the perfect film.

    Me? I'm looking forward to Rogue One being my go-to film of the year, and maybe even the standout of the entire Star Wars saga. The countdown has begun...

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  6. Are we all planning to see Rogue One asap? My local cinema just announced tickets will go on sale midnight tonight and I'll be taking my two boys to the first showing we can get into (hopefully on the 15th, release day). So excited! I'm just wondering group review? Or theme for the week, depending when peeps are seeing it.

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  7. Cool idea to do a theme week, Pippa. (Spacefreighters Lounge Goes Rogue. LOL) Or would you all be interested in doing a FB discussion event over the course of a few days like the Brigade did for Star War: TFA?

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    1. I love that title! But I should be able to make the FB discussion this time. Monsters don't break up from school until late this Christmas.

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  8. Um, I'll leave Rogue One to you STAR WARS fans. I'll probably see it, but not right away. Certainly have no objections to a SW takeover of SL, tho, if y'all want it.

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