Film Review : Arrival

Andrew Stephens, Saturday the 10th of December, 2016 in Films, Science Fiction

Arrival Poster12 huge, oddly shaped vessels suddenly appear over random locations of the Earth. There are no broadcasts or actions, the ships just float there. What do the aliens want? Louise, a linguist with security clearance (and haunting memories of her dead daughter) is tapped by the US military to lead the communication effort with the Minnesota ship.

Arrival is a decent stab at a complex sci-fi story, very much in the vein of Contact or parts of 2001. The aliens first appear unknowable but we slowly begin to understand their language as Louise and her new sidekick make progress deciphering the complexities of the alien mode of communication. Meanwhile, things are getting tense as other contries find other ways to deal with the ships.

It is almost impossible to talk about Arrival with mentioning specific plot points, which would spoil some of the enjoyment of watching the film. Arrival is very good but I don't think it quite becomes the film it clearly wants to be. For those who don't wish to be spoiltArrival is a film you want to go into cold, I recommend The Arrival as a thoughtful take on a challenging idea, and if it falls short it is not for lack of trying.

For those who have seen Arrival, follow me beneath the picture...

One of the alien ships, floating in the mist
One of the alien ships, floating in the mist

I felt the central mystery of the film, the nature of the vistor's language, was too quickly glossed over to be satisfying. I realize that it would be difficult to make visually compelling scenes out of slowly deciphering the details of the alien script but I thought that the revelation that understanding the language changes your perception of time was unearned. There were little hints and throwaway lines along the way but I had hoped for something cleverer, or at least details of how the script worked.

I also thought that the subplot with the soldiers trying to blow up the alien craft seemed crudely shoehorned in to provide tension. Does the army not secure its explosives against misuse? What did the soldiers hope to achieve anyway?

On the other hand, the trick the film plays with the flashbacks to Hannah was nicely done and the resolution to the Chinese subplot was excellent in a causality-bending sort of way, like a particularly satisfying episode of Doctor WhoThat is supposed to be praise, in case you are unsure.

Hannah's existence did raise some questions for me - was Louise selfish to have a baby even knowing that the child would die young after suffering from a disease? Was it even voluntary given that Louise knew it would happen?

It just seemed like the wrong choice to me, since she could presumably have a baby with someone else (she knows the relationship will not work out anyway) or get IVF or any of ten thousand other choices. It made it hard to be sympathetic to her character in the end, unless she is trapped by predestination. But if that is the case Arrival turns into a horror film.

These questions did not ruin the film for me, but I would have preferred that they be addressed, if not explained.

Despite my quibbles, Arrival is a very solid and generally well made take on a first contact story. Recommended.