Arrival isn't a dumb movie, but you're dumb if you need it explained
[SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.