Arrival isn't a dumb movie, but you're dumb if you need it explained

[SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY.]

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At the climax of Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks discovers that thinking in the aliens’ language grants her the ability to perceive the past, present, and future as one, which enables her to use information from the future to prevent a global war against the aliens in the present. As a side effect of her new perception of time, Louise experiences visions of her future daughter, whom she decides to have, even though her visions tell her the child will get sick and die in her teens.

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If you exited the theater scratching your head over some of those details, you’re not alone. Google “Arrival explained,” and you’ll find any number of articles and videos that’ll tell you everything you missed and put it all together for you. Many a blogger has made a comfortable shtick out of playing the knowledgeable pop-culture sage, doling out the morsels of wisdom you need to solve the mystery of, say, Primer or Inception or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And if the professionals don’t do it to your satisfaction, you can always take to Reddit or the IMDB message boards and air your pressing plot questions for the Internet hive-mind to swarm over.

Only Shakespeare or Star Trek is worthy of this level of internet analysis

Only Shakespeare or Star Trek is worthy of this level of internet analysis.

I’m not going to be doing that with Arrival. Not because I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be doing; on the contrary, there are lots of really complicated films out there that need to be explained and analyzed, and the act of puzzling out a difficult movie is a hugely fun and constructive part of being a movie geek. I won’t be doing it for Arrival because Arrival isn’t smart or complicated enough to merit that treatment, and it’s frankly worrying that so many people believe otherwise.

For all the early hype I’d read about Arrival, I was disappointed how little it did to earn the adjectives I’d seen splashed all over the early reviews: “intelligent,” “complex,” “mind-bending” (I lost count at how many times I read that one). I’m not saying Arrival is a dumb movie, per se. I’m saying that if you need it explained, you are probably dumb.

You

You.

Which is not necessarily to say that Arrival isn’t clever. It is. The whole conceit behind the movie is clever. The choice to center the narrative around the act of establishing communication between the two species is a clever one. It focuses on a detail that most alien-encounter films gloss over in the service of getting the story moving as fast as possible: they’ll fix things so that the aliens have already learned English from our TV or wireless internet signals, or else they have some sort of magic universal translator, or quite often they’ll just skip over that part entirely.

Looking at you, Thor

Looking at you, Thor.

Choosing to realistically depict what would, in real life, be a long, messy, laborious, delicate, tension-fraught process – that’s clever.

It’s also clever to feature a protagonist that’s an expert in the “soft science” of linguistics, rather than the biologists and physicists and mathematicians that normally pop up in movies of this sort. We like to pretend that it’s the devotees of hard science that’ll be of the most service in the event of an alien encounter, but realistically, these aliens can make interstellar space voyages; what are our scientists likely to know that they don’t already? By contrast, it’s the people in the soft sciences and humanities who actually make a living studying uniquely human phenomena: human minds, human languages, human societies, human institutions. If aliens did actually show up, wouldn’t they be more interested in talking to those people first?

Either that or some random dumbass redneck. It's 50/50, really.

Either that, or some random dumbass redneck. It’s 50/50, really.

But, as a linguist could tell you, “clever” doesn’t necessarily mean “smart.” A smart movie wouldn’t be as simplistic and reductive in its portrayal of scientists at work as Arrival is. For all the fuss that’s made about how indispensable Louise’s skills are, we get next to no information as to how Louise actually puzzles out the Heptapod language. We only know she’s a genius linguist because we’ve been told so; she doesn’t use any of the technical jargon of her discipline, or offer any information that a non-linguist couldn’t have supplied, or do any of the tasks that a linguist would actually be useful for.

Pictured: Cunning linguistics

Pictured: cunning linguistics.

Arrival rushes through quite a lot of the actual legwork as though it’s afraid of boring us, because it probably is. Basically, there’s a scene in which Louise trades names with the two aliens, and then there’s a montage of Louise talking to the aliens, intercut with shots of her typing, clicking, scribbling madly on papers and whiteboards. When the montage ends, her tablet magically contains a database of alien logograms with all the lexemes labeled in English.

Download the HeptaNow app for only $2.99!

Download the HeptaNow app for only $2.99!

It sure seems to me that screenwriter Eric Heissener didn’t have any faith in his audience’s willingness to follow anything technical. The only sign I saw that anyone in the movie did so much as scan a Wikipedia page on linguistics is the film’s frequent, sledgehammer-subtle references to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which supports a theory known as linguistic determinism (the theory that your primary language determines your perception of reality). In real life, this theory’s been largely discredited, and even if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t work as it does in Arrival. For such a “smart” sci-fi film, Arrival sure hangs its hat on a tenuous understanding of a scientific theory (which it then proceeds to sloppily misapply) in exactly the same way as a stupid sci-fi film would.

And the big twist at the end that’s making the internet collectively mess its britches? I’m genuinely having trouble understanding how people weren’t able to see it coming. For my part, I was clued in halfway through the movie, when Jeremy Renner’s character raised the possibility that circular logograms that the Heptapods communicate with might be indicative that they don’t perceive linear time. If you’re at all familiar the concept of nonlinear narratives, that should be your cue to think back to what you’ve seen so far and try to identify scenes whose places in the movie’s narrative sequence are ambiguous.

In the case of Arrival, the only possible option was the opening montage of Louise’s daughter growing up, laughing, playing, sickening, and finally dying. Someone should tell Denis Villeneuve that mysteries are more fun to solve when you need more than one clue to solve them.

v previous mystery writing experience

Villeneuve’s previous mystery writing experience.

And if that’s not enough, Arrival got under my skin by continuing to play coy with its nonexistent mystery long after I had it figured out – cultivating phony ambiguity, intercutting dialogue between present and future scenes in a way that practically screams “WE’RE GIVING YOU A HINT, PAY ATTENTION,” acting like it was somehow up in the air who the father of Louise’s daughter would end up being (hmmm, could it possibly be the male lead of the film, the only man, scratch that, the only character, Louise interacts with to any extent? I wonderrrrr.)

It doesn’t get truly insulting, however, until one particular conversation between Louise and her daughter Hannah in a flash-forward future vision. “Hannah” is a palindrome; it reads the same backwards and forwards. That’s the sort of sly hint that would make you look back after seeing the movie and say “oh yeaaaaah” with a grin. I say “would” because we don’t actually don’t get that opportunity. Instead, Louise tells Hannah exactly what her name means; she literally says, “Your name is special because it’s a palindrome. It’s the same backwards and forwards.” Thanks for that, Arrival, can you also hold my hand out of the theater and wipe me up after I potty?

Me

Me.

But if I was surprised that some viewers couldn’t guess the twist in advance, or process it intellectually after it happened, I guess I really shouldn’t have been. Reading some of the questions featured on Slate.com’s “Arrival Explained” article yielded a veritable buffet of crayon-chewing stupidity, such as:

“When Louise is interacting with the aliens at the beginning, how does she know she’ll be able to breathe when she takes her suit off on the aliens’ ship?”

The first scene on the alien ship contains a tight shot with the camera lingering on a caged canary. Before Louise takes off her respirator, she looks at the canary. Ta da! That’s how Louise knew it was safe to breathe. I mean, even if you’ve never heard the phrase “canary in a coal mine,” the concept of using a small animal to test to test the safety of the atmosphere shouldn’t be that hard to puzzle out, should it?

“Why does [Louise’s husband] leave her?”

A perfectly good question, if you were at the snack bar during the scene where Louise tells her daughter exactly why her husband left her – a scene that gave away the twist again to boot. Christ, how much thinking do you need done for you, anyway?

“Surely [the Heptapods] didn’t come all the way to Earth just to give humans the gift of their language?

YES. Yes, they did. Want to know how I know they did? Because Louise asked if the “weapon” they referred to was their language, and they answered in the affirmative, and then they left soon after that because THEY HAD ACCOMPLISHED THEIR MISSION. Gaaaaah.

Slate is supposedly geared toward the urbane, cultured, and savvy among us, and yet these are not questions that arise out of ambiguity or complexity. These are not the result of an artfully woven mystery with lots of crucial information hidden or omitted entirely. There’s nothing here that needs to be interpreted. The answer to each and every one of those questions was either an extremely easy inference or stated explicitly in dialogue. If you weren’t clear on any of them, it’s entirely because you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to the goddamned movie you paid to see.

It is troubling to me that, in an age where pretty much everyone agrees that movies are getting dumber, a mediocre movie can win all sorts of accolades and be praised as “smart,” “uncompromising,” and “cerebral” simply by putting on a smart costume and doing a gross pantomime of what it imagines a smart movie might look like. It’s an exercise in connect-the-dots pseudo-intellectualism in which the goal isn’t to actually say anything smart, but rather make the audience feel smart. Arrival offers mysteries stacked heavily in your favor and then pats you on the back for figuring them out. Arrival apes its visual style from brainy sci-fi flicks of yesteryear, with plenty of homages to 2001 and Close Encounters; every frame is like a congratulation, a silent affirmation of your superior taste: “Aren’t you glad you chose to come see this movie instead of some pew-pew-kablooey effects extravaganza? This is art.Arrival lets its attention drift away from such mundanities as performances (Amy Adams looks positively narcoleptic) or characterization (seriously, the romantic chemistry between the two leads was shoved in with all the grace of a gorilla attempting macramé), trusting that you’ll be buoyed through to the end with the power of BLOWIN’ YER MIND, DUUUUUDE.

I don’t blame you, Arrival. But I am disappointed, all the same.

Check out Agony Booth’s Bad First Draft of Arrival’s screenplay or Why long-awaited sequels are never that good.  

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  • maarvarq

    What are your thoughts on the visual choice that overwhelmed most of the scenes for me, i.e. why was everything so goddamned dark? If it was a metaphor for not understanding the aliens, then I missed seeing the literal beam of light that should have come when she had her revelation.

  • Sir Raider Duck, OMS

    I went into “Arrival” expecting to love it the same way I’d loved “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian.”

    Half an hour in, I was mentally making plans to pre-order it on Vudu or Amazon Video.

    By the time it was finished, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to watch it again. It reminded me, in a weird way, of “Outbreak:” an awesome first act, awesome second act, and a terrible third act that ruins the movie.

  • mamba

    Thank you! For a long while now, movies that are smart but don’t trust their audience to be smart with them have bothered me a lot. I like movies to just…well…BE, let the movie unfold and trust the audience to follow you.

    But then you pointed out that the audience seemingly DIDN’T follow, so that throws my idea out the window. Apparently Arrival DID have to handhold people, because as you pointed out they weren’t exactly subtle and yet people STILL don’t understand it? Sheesh!!! Maybe they should have a new movie rating system “Rated “I” for “Intelligence required”. Pay attention and think about what you’re seeing. Mindless movies are in the other theater”

    It reminds me of when me and my wife went to see Matrix Reloaded (which I enjoyed and followed no problem). After the movie I was waiting for hr outside the theater bathroom and heard countless people complaining that the architect’s speech made no sense at all and was random blathering. After the 8th or so person passed me saying that, I finally stopped them and said “OK, I can’t take it anymore…do you want an explanation in simple words from me? I have some time to kill…” and went on to do exactly that.

    Same as the movie Zardoz. I read countless reviews about it’s confusing no sense narrative and went in expecting a simply bad B movie of it’s time. When I stopped watching, I turned to my friend and just said “Makes perfect sense to me, are YOU confused?” and they shook their head as well. We couldn’t figure out where the problem was, in fact we thought it was rather ahead of it’s time for the concepts they delved into, and they even spelled it all out if you were paying attention!

    Of course, that might be the problem right there. Why is it some people just don’t WATCH a movie AND think at the same time?

    • Greenhornet

      Alternate MATRIX:

      “There is no spoon.”
      Takes the spoon and smacks the kid on his head with it.
      “Ow!”
      “What do you mean ‘ow’? THERE IS NO SPOON.”

      If “there is no spoon”, do something REALLY clever and mind-blowing: don’t bend it, turn it into a banana, or a jet plane!

      “Take the blue pill and you wake up in your bed believing anything you want.”
      OK, I’ll believe that I’m in the Matrix.

      Sometimes a movie isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.

      PS: Have you seen the “Film Theory” video about Neo NOT being the chosen one? It’s interesting.

  • Jonathan Campbell

    To be fair, if they didn’t understand Arrival because they weren’t paying attention, it might just mean that the movie put them to sleep. Kind of wish I slept through it.

  • Greenhornet

    “…to prevent a global war against the aliens in the present.”

    We’re about to go to war with the Earthlings! They can kick the ever-loving crap out of us!
    Wait Gorplag-Us! I have an idea! let’s let some idiot Earth woman see the past, present and future AT THE SAME TIME (Confusing the hell out of her) and she’ll convince everybody NOT to go to war!
    That’s just stupid enough to work, Eenymeenyminee-Mo.

    I’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that space alien are all jerks who are out to get us. And why would the call their language a WEAPON, anyway? That’s the surest way to put people who don’t know your intentions on red alert!

    PS: Weird that the spell-check isn’t bothered by “Gorplag-Us” and “Eenymeenyminee-Mo”/

  • Daniel Gonzalez

    man are there ANY positive reviews on this damn website?

    • Tyler Peterson

      There are, but you have to make a Patreon donation to see them.

      • Jonathan Campbell

        Well, hopefully, Rogue One will be good…

  • frankelee

    Yeah. I liked this movie, but it was 20% The Martian, and 30% Oakland.

  • PDG

    Well the ‘science’ behind the movie is stupid therefore the movie is stupid. Just another case of screenwriter who heard some fun scientific information that he does not understand like “we use only few percent of our brain capabilities” or “language can rewire your brain” and the guy just runs with that premise and creates retarded script.
    If this is the best movie of 2016 I quit watching movies.

    • Banjin

      My thoughts exactly. And the idea that having one dimension less (time) somehow leads to a superior intellect. Non-linear thought (which by the way makes non sense) is like 3d instead of 4d, it’s less complex than linear thought.

      People love the movie because Amy Adams – while knowing the past and the future – still chooses the path that leads to her daughter dying, which is the “noble path”. But she has already seen this path and knows it to be the future. She doesn’t actually have a choice. That’s her only future, her inevitable fate. Free will cannot exist in a universe where one alrerady knows their future.

    • Terry

      “rewire your brain” aka neuroplasticity

    • I disagree.

      The idea that learning some alien language alters your brain in such a way to distort your perceptions of time is Lovecraftian, but it is not an inherently stupid idea, regardless of whether it works off of the misconception that language shapes people’s perceptions.

      And even if the underlying idea is stupid on its face to you, the movie being structured in such a way that plays with the protagonist’s and audiences’ perceptions of time is an intriguing idea. They did something like it in “Memento” telling the story backwards to grant greater and greater context. “Arrival” does something similar by juxtaposing images from the future and the past and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions from the associations. That is a clever presentation of the idea of the movie via the language of film making.

      Lots of science fiction stories are about taking an idea that is not wholly scientific (or outright non-science) and running with it alongside their more scientific trappings. The Force is the best example, though the idea of love being a form of navigational telepathy in “Interstellar” also works.

  • JoePhilly

    The main problem that I have with films such as “Arrival ” & “Interstellar ” has nothing to do with dumb or smart. It has to do with lazy filmmaking hiding under the guise of pretention. Because the premise of the film “non linear thinking / time perception ” is simply an unproven theory , it’s a really easy “out” for the writer & director to basically do anything they want to & say “well, it COULD happen !!” In the end there really is NOTHING TO GET with these films. It’s sort of s simpleton “Gee, what if?!” experience, plopped into the audiences lap & then marketed as “mind bendingly clever”. There simply no “there there”. Sorry.

    • Irish Bill

      It’s a movie…..not a documentary or biography. It’s entertainment like most movies, which also are not based on truths. There could be “non linear thinking / time perception ” out there. I don’t know and I’m pretty certain most other people, aliens included, don’t know either.

      Just saying it’s like most all movies, based on an that could hopefully make a buck. This one succeeded there, as has countless other movies filled with special effects and super human actions.

      For the record, I thought the movie was dumb. Just didn’t go anywhere for me.