It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Arrival was supposed to herald the ascendance of Denis Villeneuve as a critical darling. This optimistic, cerebral sci-fi – where aliens are greeted by a female linguist rather than gun-toting marines – was going to win over the haters – the detractors who mocked Prisoners and sniffed at Sicario – and we would walk in lockstep together towards a bright future where the Canadian auteur was ranked among the greatest directors.
Maybe that’s the path we’re headed towards. Certainly, Arrival’s combination of optimism and emotion seems to have won over the same kind of critics who were underwhelmed by his earlier (excellent) works. But as the film’s momentum grows, I find myself lagging behind, liking the film less and less the more I think about it. As befitting Villeneuve’s filmography, it’s hard to quibble with the technical aspects, whether its Bradford Young’s crisp, contemplative cinematography, Jóhann Jóhannson’s unnerving, Mica-Levi-inspired score or Amy Adams’ central performance. These are worthy of praise, yet they’re in service of a regrettably shallow screenplay that prioritises trite universality over necessary specificity.
To that end, let’s get specific. Arrival is adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story, Story of Your Life. Chiang’s story is hard sci-fi, centring on the linguistic and mathematical particulars involved in understanding an alien species’ unfamiliar language. So it’s understandable that the feature film adaptation would take a different approach, paralleling Dr Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams’) quest to interpret the alien’s objectives with mutinous military-types and questions of geopolitics and warfare. These additions aren’t incompatible with the scaffolding provided by Chiang and the film, to its credit, retains the most unconventional aspect of Story of Your Life – its unique approach to time.
What follows requires some spoilers, so consider this your fair warning.
Both Arrival and its source material reveal that their aliens – dispersed across the globe in concave dirigibles and referred to as ‘heptapods’ – experience reality differently to humans. Our experience is linear, a series of causative events strung one after the other. But the heptapods’ perception of time is different – time isn’t an infinite series of moments perched like dominos, but rather something concurrent, where there’s no distinction between ‘past’ and ‘present’ and ‘future.’
It’s a heady idea and one that, to its credit, Arrival handles quite well. Its structural mix of flashbacks and flashforwards (and the very deliberate ambiguity over which is which) pairs with Villeneuve’s talent for tone to develop a kind of teleological tension in the back half. Louise’s understanding of the alien language allows her – with a nod to Sapir-Whorf – to experience time like the heptapods do, so we cut back and forth in time while blurring the notion of cause and effect. We know what Louise is going to achieve, even how she’s going to achieve it before it’s seen on screen, but the combination of cinematic elements maintains a heightening sense of excitement and interest even when the climax is a foregone conclusion.
Taken in a vacuum, this is a remarkable achievement – and no doubt the reason for my critical colleague’s fervent praise of the film. The emotional resonances of the film diverge from its conceptual spine – the way we feel is distinct from what we know. But of course, that’s always true. We might understand the physical principles that will predict the path of a ray of light through an optically denser medium, but this doesn’t prevent us from marvelling at the prismatic scattering that eventuates. We rewatch a film or reread a story we know well and we are engaged even though we know how it will end, right down to the finest detail. We live our lives with the inevitability of our deaths hanging over us, but the choices we make are buoyed rather than deadened by our knowledge of our own mortality.
If only these ideas, so deftly and cleverly executed in Chiang’s short story, could have been allowed to flower in its feature film adaptation! Alas, the screenwriter tasked with reinterpreting the story is one Eric Heisserer, heretofore known for remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing. Faced with the understandable reluctance to weigh down audiences with linguistic minutiae, Heisserer instead pivots into familiar material: paranoia, the threat of war, geopolitical tensions. While this plays more neatly into Villeneuve’s hands – the light tone of the short story, the joyous sense of discovery and exploration isn’t really his bag – it’s executed with such clumsiness and reliance on cliché that it almost scuttles the film altogether.
Arrival’s crudely-drawn political landscape lacks any of the thoughtful nuance with which Chiang approached his subject matter (which, admittedly, omitted any mention of wider global ramifications). The boogieman of the piece is China, represented by one General Shang (Tzi Ma), whose upcoming impact on the plot is oft-foreshadowed with clunky dialogue like, “They call him the big domino, because whatever he does, four other countries will follow.” One might wonder why China’s greatest linguists choose to converse with the aliens using an innately adversarial medium, but don’t expect any answers beyond ‘it suited the plot.’
This is a deterministic, even childish view of international relations, and it’s reflected in microcosm as well: for example, elite soldiers who mount an ill-conceived rebellion against the heptapods after listening to a few too many angry podcasts (said rebellion is the film’s nadir, though it’s thankfully quarantined away from the rest of the film for the most part).
The inevitability of these subplots are understandable, and arguably necessary within the film’s unconventional structure. But by shifting focus from Banks’ problem-solving to a facile, deterministic view of humanity, the film inadvertently reveals its own shallowness. I suspect most of Arrival’s proponents forgive these misgivings by instead focus on the story’s emotional spine, the bond between Louise and her daughter (seen in flashbacks that are later revealed to be flashforwards).
The core of this storyline, borrowed from the original short story, is a powerful one. Granted knowledge of her own future, Banks is forever aware of her daughter’s impending death. It’s not so much a choice to have her daughter in any case, but simply a recognition that the emotional resonance of the connections we make with our loved ones are powerful and worthy even if they are by necessity transient, ending with our death or theirs. The emotional heft is shouldered entirely by Villeneuve, Young and Jóhannson, with Heisserer relying upon cliché after cliché (want to show a heartwarming bond between mother and child? Maybe find something more original than the pair frolicking about on the grass.). The truncated romantic relationship similarly eschews specificity for the universal, but can’t help but trip over itself with some egregiously dreadful dialogue.
Which is a shame. Arrival is far from a bad film, but its flaws are too persistent to ignore. Its political message – to strive for communication and understanding over antagonism – is admirable but eroded by its trite, thoughtless representations of international relations. Its emotional core is moving but empty, reliant on a soaring soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography rather than robust, idiosyncratic characterisation. I understand the praise for it; I only wish I felt the same.