Film Review: Arrival

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Warning: This review discusses the plot. 

In keeping with its circular logic and narrative design, it’s appropriate that any discussion of Arrival begins as it does, at the end…which is a spoiler but one you warned about. Up to the moment we learn that Amy Adams’ linguist has had her brain and perception rewired by an alien lexicon that articulates acute forth dimensional consciousness, allowing the squid-like Heptapods, so now Adams, to see into the future, this has been a cerebral sci-fi movie about the importance of cross-cultural understanding and communication. We know it’s a serious take, because it’s shot with a somber, desaturated palette and all the performances are low key and meditative, signalling the film’s manifesto; that of thoughtful contemplation.

But once the cat is out of the bag, Arrival becomes a far more problematic, and arguably more interesting movie about predestination and choice; perhaps reverting to genre type and providing us a malevolent alien visitor after all, albeit one whose weapon – their word, not mine – is language rather than an energy pulse that incinerates skyscrapers. One could argue that Star Trek alumni Brent Spiner should have been in this movie, rather than Independence Day: Resurgence, as its grounded first contact scenario is a better sequel to his TV work than the militaristic posturing and nationalism that Arrival critiques. But still, there’s that ending, and it leaves a taste in the mouth like a pint of squid ink.

We’re asked to accept that the aliens great gift to humanity is foresight, or more specifically, foreknowledge of their lives. Learn their language and you can see into the future, as language, so the movie validating theory goes, determines the way you think; a point that allows for a political dig at the paranoid Chinese and hawkish Russians, who are quick to put their tanks on the aliens’ lawn. This beneficence allows Amy Adams to learn she’ll have a daughter with Jeremy Renner’s scientist who’ll die of cancer aged 12. Yet, rather than tell him, the disturbing conclusion has her embrace a future that only she’s aware of, apparently resigned to its inevitability (clairvoyance gives her the insight to solve the alien mystery, so if she doesn’t follow this path then a paradox is created and we don’t want to get into that).

Renner, then, has no idea that he’s going to be a Dad or that his daughter will die. Adams will tell him, long after she’s born, but that, we realise, is a little like phoning your ex years after your secret abortion. Renner doesn’t get a choice; all control of his life has been outsourced to his enlightened partner-to-be. And this is the aliens’ gift in a nutshell; the realisation that we’re all part of a pre-determined scheme and have no ability to shape our destiny whatsoever. We’re slaves to fate. Everything we’re going to do has already happened. Free will is an illusion. Adams, rather then being horrified by this, accepts it with a tearful hug and reflective stare, apparently indifferent to just how fucking terrifying a revelation this is. And how good of the squids to travel all that way to endow us with this crushing knowledge.

Of course one could argue that the aliens’ philosophy, and by extension the movie’s, is that by seeing the complete picture, we gain greater self-knowledge and appreciation for the interconnectivity of all things – or some similar regressive Eastern concept – but that ignores that whereas Adams might be grateful and welcoming, others might foresee the painful death of their loved ones, personal failures and disappointments, and feel inclined to suicide, not that you’d dare as that would upset the universe’s tyrannical design.

Perhaps the poor squids had no choice but to visit and share, as they’d already understood that was their destiny. Maybe they’re victims too. But for us humans it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Arrival, for all its commendable meditative intentions, is a movie imagined as life affirming that actually suggests that life may not be worth living at all.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Country: US

Year: 2016

Running Time: 116 mins

Certificate: 12A for repackaging Eastern philosophy as intelligent sci-fi, the knowledge that there's no such thing as choice, and latent racism.

21 Responses

  1. Hello, Ed!

    I just wanted to thank you for your review. I just saw the film myself and felt exactly the same. What a f*cking bummer!

    It was like a funeral for humanity. I’m SO disappointed. I was hoping that there would be some hope, but like you said, the tone and message of the film is resoundingly nihilistic.

    Anyway, thanks for echoing my thoughts with your excellent words. I’m glad it wasn’t just me who “didn’t get it!”

  2. Jeff Tribe says:

    SPOILER ALERT Hi Ed. Hi Dave. I have a horrible feeling we might be the only ones who feel this film was a bit… well… a bit depressing, really. It’s sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Letting the audience assume flashforwards were actually flashbacks was a nice setup for the rug pull at the end, and the General Chang phone number schtick was nice… but the payoff just negated the logic of the whole movie. Think about it… Louise has written a book teaching the World how to speak the language… it only took her three months to learn it from scratch… every other country not only learned it in exactly the same time, they all picked the same day to ask the same question (What is your purpose?)… and yet, with all of this widespread learning going on, Ian never bothered to reach the “seeing the future” level of understanding? Nor anyone else? Hannah is 12… why didn’t her Mum teach her? It only takes a few months, remember. Surely it’s taught globally in schools, by that point. Now here’s the biggest gaff of all… if the Heptapods could see the future, why did they let the bombs get loaded on board? Don’t say to fulfil destiny… their plan would have worked way smoother without the bombs… and the only casualty was the alien who tried to run away! So… not just a downer, but a flawed one. If you’re gonna do SciFi, assume it will get watched by the world’s hardest to please audience – nitpicky detail geeks looking for uplifting cerebral escapism. This one was heading for an 8, but crashed out of orbit to a 4 in the last ten minutes.

    • Lars says:

      I just finished watching the movie and I thought, sure – there are some issues with the scientific and technical details, but this was a STORY, and it held my attention and gave me some things to think about. I think Craig makes a good point – not everything is spelled out – there are some uncertainties to ponder, just as there are some things in life that have no pat solution or resolution. In this story, maybe some beings have the power to see the future(or A future), but there are different threads that may play out, and some that don’t – but if the future is predetermined, then why bother doing anything; the heptapods came to earth for a reason, and that implies that the future is not inevitable.

      Great film.

  3. Craig says:

    Maybe the mind is only able to see SOME things in the future? I think that is the point of this movie. Why do the heptapods need humanity’s help 3000 years in the future? That she was unaware of the Chinese leaders involvement until the last possible moment. That the aliens couldn’t just maybe drop by her house and give her the knowledge? Rather than flying 12 ships across the galaxy? The capacity of the mind – human or heptapod – would prevent complete foreknowledge and would leave the door open to misinterpretation and uncertainty which may be enough reason to doubt the inevitability of the future you see, or think you see.

    • I think the biggest error any viewer could make is trying to make sense out of this film. The more you think about it, the more plot holes start opening up. The plot is a sieve.

    • Jeff Tribe says:

      Hi Craig… Ithink you’ve missed the overarching problem in the story… it’s not a question of how much of the future speakers of ‘the language’ see, or how they interpret it – it’s the fact that after 12 years, even though she should be living amongst a horde of ‘speaker seers’ (including her husband and daughter), ONLY Amy’s character sees into the future. Confession… I picked the flashbacks were actually flash forwards when she told her daughter her dad was the scientist, and they did the “null-sum game” bit. So I was watching very carefully for evidence people in the future could see the future… there was none. The Chinese General had her phone call to go on… but he just worked out what needed to happen… he didn’t see the future. How is gift to humanity just a gift to Amy?

  4. Randy Robb says:

    I totally agree with Ed! I saw this tonight expecting a great movie, and a lot of the technical and philosophical middle was really good. But after it was done, the whole point of the movie was things are going to happen as they happen, and there is nothing you can do about it. A better ending would be that Louise realizes this, decides she does have free will, and does not do what she sees. She doesn’t make the call, and decides not to marry, realizing the weapon is the belief that nothing matters and we are hopeless, our choices will only end in sadness. Then it shows a different future where her daughter lives and the aliens are blown up by China!

    • Ron says:

      I was most disturbed over the depiction that Jeremy Renner would leave his family. “Life imitates art” isn’t exactly predestination but why can’t the movies be part of the solution and provide a positive deception of marriage and the strength of family.

  5. Saar Dean says:

    Well not exactly. It’s not a determinist universe. She asks Renner if he could see the future would he change it? (His answer sounds like no). Then we’re told he left her, later, because she ‘made the wrong choice’. Which could have been to let their daughter die. Or something else. Anyway, not determinist: choices and alternatives. Then there’s the bit about an illness that can wipe out the species. She must presumably stop that happening in order for humanity to save the aliens in 3000 years. (Or whatever). So there are alternative futures (as there always are in timewarp films). And I’m not sure the film requires everyone to be able to see the future. It’s completely unclear about all that. Louise gets the ‘gift’. Does everyone? The film doesn’t tell and doesn’t need or want to — strategically, it uses the plot (which is standard hollywood, whatever the critics say) to tell a different kind of story that doesn’t need to answer those questions.

  6. Eric says:

    Ok, I’ll bite.

    Perhaps the reason why there were no other ‘seers’ after 12 years is that she had either a) a hard time convincing people of what she’d learned or b) had a hard time explaining it? Or c) or d) etc. Who knows. No plot is perfect but this is hardly a let down for me considering the other recent stabs at cosmic plots in film that have failed far more miserably.

    As for the so called depressing fact of determinism, maybe it isn’t so bad experientially. It wouldn’t change what you do necessarilly but it could potentially free you to just fully experience your ride without all the paranoia about whether you’re getting it right or not. Also, I didn’t see it so much as ‘now she sees the future’ so much as now she experiences her life as a kind of continuum. A la Slaughter House 5. To move over to that sort of perception of time offers possibilities of experience that are probably inconcievable to how we see it as people trapped on the time line like train passengers. Here she’s not just seeing the future but starting to experience her whole life as a loop. Who knows what tht could be like.

  7. MTE says:

    First of all, I did like this movie. Having said that:

    Never mind the paradox-ridden plot, over-attempt at emotional depth & over-use of prolonged sappy facial close-ups … what was the deal with Forest Whittaker’s accent? Was I just not sophisticated enough to place it, or was is exactly as bizarre, inconsistent & annoying as it seemed? Just sayin’…

  8. Jeff Tribe says:

    Hi, Eric… aaaaah… nope. The “Why is she the only seer?” question will remain a permanent plot fail – because the writer and director tried to be too clever. Two of the flash forwards clumsily destroy the logic; we see her at a feted soirée where she is obviously an important attendee – she is searched out and recognised by General Shang (who never saw her during the crisis and shouldn’t know she exists unless she had proved during that satellite phone call that she was a seer!), so everyone knows she solved the language/became a seer/made or changed history. And outside the window we see an alien symbol hanging United Nations-like amongst other countries’ flags. The world knows the aliens were good guys… how? If seeing the future wasn’t now a thing, then the aliens just came and left – no need to give them a flag and a party. And the second fail? We see her open up a box of her tell-all book… if that book wasn’t taken seriously, she wouldn’t get invited to swanky official parties! So… no alternate timelines, just a single timeline with logic fails. Oh, and the “wrong decision” she made was deciding to have a daughter without letting her husband know she was doomed to die young. Which obviously was a surprise to him, since he must have taken up bowling or something and not had time to continue his seer-language lessons, even though he was now married to the Oprah of alien speak self-help authors. I think I have now put way more than enough time into this Terminator-without-the-brains-or-the-fun-bits movie, and find that rift in the space/time continuum so I can go back and save time by I watching it. Aah… I remember it just like it was tomorrow…

    • Jeff Tribe says:

      … that was “unwatching it”, not “I watching it”. Autocorrect used to work a lot better next year.

  9. saar dean says:

    Not convinced. So she’s a celeb, she cracked the language, she wrote the book, people love and celebrate her. That doesn’t mean they’re ALL seers. It makes just as much sense that she’s celebrated as the only one.

    More to the point, I just don’t think the film needs to answer that. It’s a Hollywood plot point, and part of what’s going on here is that Hollywood is just the sort of language that (Arrival suggests) stunts your thinking. So let it go. 🙂

  10. Nancy says:

    THANK you for this review. My comment to my son after seeing this was that Sharknado had better special effects and made more sense.

    All the incredibly pseudo-scientific linguistic BS. Think about it. Suppose you just made contact with a group of people with whom you had no linguistic similarities. The first thing you would do to communicate would be to hold up a sign in Latin letters saying “human” and “Louise?”
    Although it turns out later that Louise can communicate with the aliens just by speaking so the idiot signs aren’t needed at all.

    How about holding out one object and saying “one” and then another and saying “two” and then another and saying “three” and then repeating that for the three of you and the two of them? Boom…you and the aliens already have three words in common.

    We learn from this linguistic genius that you can’t asks “what is your purpose” until you teach the aliens the distinction between the singular and plural “you” (which actually doesn’t even exist in English)? Geez Louise. Literally.

    I thought the ending where SHE accepts having a child who will die had the potential to be very moving. Except of course that she doesn’t give the father of the child the right to this knowledge. Not unlike knowing that you were carrying a lethal gene but not bothering to mention it to your husband. Or, of course, the kid that you choose to bring into the world who gets to die at 12.

    As far as knowing General Chang’s wife’s dying words…she probably just guessed that they were “Chang, you idiot, that’s not the entrance ramp it’s the EXIT…..”

  11. Tim says:

    What annoyed me is that this foresight reveals her daughter’s death thing should have been the core of the film, giving us an allegorical investigation of morality that is actually very relevant given the ever-growing array of genetic tests that can now be carried out on foetuses. It’s as though the film makers decided “Nah, this is too difficult. My head hurts, and we don’t want to piss off the Religious Right. Lets just brush over the whole thing”.

    It could have been a really, really clever film but instead went for the smarty-pants Shyalaman twist and left it there.

  12. Joe says:

    Good review. I had high expectations but felt the movie was simplistic and incomplete. I have another interpretation of the “gift” given to Louise. They said the aliens experience time as non linear so there really is no beginning or end. What that tells me is that you can interact with your future and past self. It was unclear if you could make changes to the past until the end of the movie. Clearly her future self gave her the information about General Chang. Then as she’s hugging Ian she has flashbacks (or is it flash forward from her past self) and you hear them agreeing to make a baby. So did her future self tell her past self to go ahead with having a baby? Also, if she knows it will have cancer, can she try to prevent it by catching it early? How specific is the information shared between past/present? The General Chang info is extremely specific. I would argue that if you can share that level of detail you could also share lottery numbers, stock prices, terrorist attacks, etc.
    That brings me to the biggest plot hole. Why is this non linear experience of time a “gift”? The movie doesn’t really explain that. The climax seemed to be that they simply figured out what the purpose of the aliens were. But it leaves you puzzled as to why this would be a good thing. Are we supposed to be more introspective on our lives and live life to its fullest? Feels kind of incomplete to me.

  13. Jo says:

    Yet another movie touting that parenthood it the fulfillment of one’s existence; greater than any other achievement or relationship one could have, and worth any collateral damage, even the child herself. This was a bummer. And I don’t like being mislead at the beginning of the film and not even realize I was sucker-punched until the end.

  14. Ben says:

    Great review. You hit on many of the things that bothered me about the movie.

    To play devil’s advocate, maybe we’re looking at it a bit wrong?

    Perhaps the “gift” doesn’t let Amy see the future so much as it allows her to kind of simultaneously live her life at different points in time? So like, it’s not so much determinism where you see what’s gonna happen and just make the same choices that lead there, as it is living and making choices all over the timeline all at once?

    I could see this being kinda what the writer has in mind but the film conveying it poorly.

    It’s also such a nonsense idea it might be impossible to explain, and might still end up rendering existence a bit meaningless.

    I guess I could read the story it’s based on.


  15. Karl says:

    I disagree about the conclusion which Dr Banks at the end saw here inevitable future and is resign to it. This is the main problem here evoke … she saw her sad future and cannot do anything about it.

    I was a bit confuse at first sight. I love Villeneuve works and I wasnt sure if I like or not this movie.. so I decided to give it a second chance and watch it again, and it was a very good decision.

    Of course Dr Banks at the end saw her future, but in the narative you understand it was a vision and she can follow this path or probably do something else.

    She decided to live what she saw, which may seem a terrible choice because she saw her lovely daughter died and her husband quit her.

    But she also deal with what she said at the very begining of the movie : she is unsure if there’s a begining and an ending. Her comprehension of the time and future change. Its not the arrow of time, pointing in just the future direction, but in all direction.

    This part is not explain, like many thing with Villeneuve works, but I figure she decided to live her life not for the ending but for every good moment she lived with her daughter and husband. Those will take place in time and will be always there just because they happens.

    So yes, her choice may look horrible, but she decide to live it for all the best moments and she is unsure if those moment will just be in some past… or simple always there accessible in time.

    I dont want to put religion into that, but think a second of the definition of “Paradise”. You are old, very sick, maybe Alzimer or worst. And suddenly, after died, you will be back in a very good condition, with familly and freinds in happyness like only the good memory counts…

    Maybe you will see this movie again, maybe not, but maybe, you will discover at the end that, what you may figure “ahhh I understand” is maybe another “mmm I though I understood”.. and maybe not, taste is personnal and most Villeneuve works let places for personnal interpretation.

    Finally, like Villeneuve, Im french from Quebec; so appology for my english. And no, Im not here to defend a man of my country.. Its more the opposite because Villeneuve is an exception : I mostly dont watch movie from other Quebec director.

  16. susan johnson says:

    Several of my friends[ women in their 70’s] raved about this movie. I like Amy Adams, but was not drawn to see the film after seeing the previews. But I went w/ a friend who liked it enough to sit through it again.., and it is winter in VT and I wanted to get out of the house. I did not like it. If 47 million is a mid budget these days.., good gravy! but my impression was it was a low budget film, and I disliked that because i felt aware of too many cheap filming tricks I like indie flicks, but not ‘cheap’ passing for ‘big deal’. Here’s what I caught: many views w/ just one actor.., often pondering life or the problem at hand. Many views of peeps walking across the barren land to the weird ship. Many scenes w little or no dialogue or ‘acting’. The sweep of Louise at home in her glass house: no acting, and 1 actor. There was just too much of that and the Vaseline on the camera lens kinda stuff[ in essence if not in reality.., like a blurred view or perspective]. I found it boring. Folks seemed to love to think they had figured it out, that it was about communicating and being ‘open’etc etc. I really prefer more dialogue, and interaction between characters. I thought it was a stupid movie. I love movies: indies, foreign, old classics and many new ones. But I did not like this one.