I was very shaky on Arrival’s merits as high concept sci-fi until its third act revelations & narrative upendings completely turned me around on how I was thinking about the story it was telling. As such, it’s difficult to discuss the film’s successes without diving headfirst into spoilers, which is something I’d like to avoid in this review if possible. Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.
My initial complaints about Arrival‘s narrative shortcomings are fairly indicative of how I feel about high-concept sci-fi cinema as a whole. With a lot of hard sci-fi, Big Ideas are given prominence while smaller, more personal emotions take an unfortunate back seat. In an ideal sci-fi work, something like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, those two ends meet a well-balanced compromise. Arrival struggles to find that compromise, opening with a world-class linguist (played by a wonderfully measured & muted Amy Adams) as she recounts the loss of a child & the monotony of an academic life lived alone, but not taking the time to live in those moments & make their emotional impact count for something. The familial drama at the film’s center is conveyed through an impressionistic set of Tree of Life-type imagery & brief conversational snippets, a preview of the worst information dump stretches of the film’s eventual alien invasion plot that finds Adams’s protagonist at the center of a potentially world-ending interplanetary negotiation. The way narrative information is conveyed in Arrival is often cold & blatantly utilitarian, at one point even spelled out in a narrated monologue that completely disrupts the flow of its storytelling rhythm. The film is much more interested in the global implications of an alien invasion (within which it’s much less realistic than a Godzilla film from this year of all things, in how it depicts America’s involvement in such a crisis) and the tensions between military & academia in its problem-solving strategies than it is depicting the smaller scale personal impact that would make these tensions resonate with any significance. Any and all personal drama within Arrival, no matter how traumatic, exists only to serve the weirder turns the plot takes in its mind-bending second half. It’s a good thing that the ideas they serve in the film’s gloriously strange conclusion are so interesting that their emotionless delivery in the front end doesn’t matter in the slightest.
I’m typically a style over substance audience when it comes to movies, especially sci-fi, so a lot of Arrival wasn’t my usual mode of genre filmmaking. Until the film pushes its narrative into the loopy, paradoxical territory of its glorious third act, it mostly just reminded me of The Martian: a reasonably entertaining story of scientific problem-solving with more in-the-moment significance than ideas worth chewing over long-term. I was very much struck by the film’s design of the alien species and their vaguely egg-shaped ships, which had a kind of 2001 monolith vibe in their clean lines & oppressive grandeur. The film would have been perfectly admirable as a The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable about humanity’s potentially aggressive response to alien contact had it remained a straightforward story, but it thankfully expands into something much stranger & much more unique. Arrival is above all else a story about the power of language, how it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict, how learning a new one can rewire your brain to think differently. Once you learn the film’s own language, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Director Denis Villeneuve tried to do something similar with the surreal conclusion of his film Enemy, another work that plays with his audience’s linear perception of storytelling, but I think he’s much more successful in pulling off the trick in Arrival. For all of my early misgivings about the film’s emotionless information dumps & preferences for big ideas over small character moments (despite the best efforts of Adams & other capable actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Forrest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner), the weird dream logic surrealism and paradoxical reality-shifting of the final act makes all of those complaints entirely worthless. The truth is that the film & I just started off speaking different languages and it’s value as a work of high-concept sci-fi storytelling was lost in translation until we found common ground. I’m very much eager to give it a second look now that I know how to communicate with its more outlandish ideas in a less-linear, less literal fashion.