"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_arrivalARRIVAL is a new one in that category of serious smart sci-fi where huge momentous things happen between the human race and alien life and/or outer space, yet it’s really about something very intimate and human (see also INTERSTELLAR, CONTACT, THE FOUNTAIN, GRAVITY). In this case it’s about twelve giant alien objects (they look like smooth flat stones you would find on a beach, balanced on the side) that come down and float in various locations around the world, yet also it’s about love and family and tragedy.

Director Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ENEMY) is no chump, so the unfolding of the historic first contact is a powerful oh shit sequence. Perpetually calm language professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, CRUEL INTENTIONS 2) ignores the commotion of students gathering around a TV, then the miniscule attendance of her lecture, but when everyone’s phones keep ringing the information finally gets to them. Sorry to interrupt – it’s just that the world has completely changed forever.

Because of a previous gig translating insurgent videos for the CIA, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, BLOODSPORT) recruits Dr. Banks to try to figure out a way to communicate with the aliens. They have not even publicly admitted that the spacecraft are manned, but there you have it.

This whole beginning part reminds me of JURASSIC PARK: secretive group hires team of renowned experts in different fields to come take a look at an earth-shattering breakthrough, doesn’t really prepare them for what they’re about to see, camera holds off showing us the sights, instead getting their reactions.

mp_arrivalBut Jurassic Park was a slick operation. They’d had years to make plans and set up the infrastructure and figure out how to operate. With this we’re in the first 48 hours. They’ve already had a team go in and fail and they’ve put together a method for wearing bio-suits and going up into the thing, but that’s about it. Much like when the scientists studied E.T., you have to wonder if they’ve ever had to do anything at all like this before, if they have some procedures that had already been prescribed in case a situation like this ever came up, or if they really are just making shit up as they go. As much as we all fear government, it’s nice to think they’d be ready for any crazy shit that came up, from outer space or otherwise.

We only see glimpses of how the other eleven ships are handled. In China they build a military presence and are on the verge of drafting us all into our first intergalactic war. The one in Montana is important not because it’s above American soil, but because it’s the one Dr. Banks is at. She comes up with the method for word by word learning to communicate with the aliens.

By the way, when we finally do get to see what these space boys look like, the design has drastically changed from the backwards-kneed humanoidish dudes in the original THE ARRIVAL I and II starring Charlie Sheen. Now they’re two giant squids (“heptapods”) that they nickname Abbot and Costello. I wonder if they considered Tango and Cash? Or Bartles and Jaymes? Or Chuck and Flav? Obviously if it had been me it would’ve been Screwface and Screwface’s Twin Brother.

So then it’s not so much like JURASSIC PARK, more like a Quatermass movie, because it’s not stringing together chase sequences, it’s mostly montages and meetings about smart people working together to try to solve a complex problem. They stand in front of a glass window writing words on a dry-erase board, the aliens responding by shooting circular pictograms out of their tentacles, which comes off seeming less weird than it is if you think about it.

Jeremy Renner (DAHMER) is there too as Ian Donnelly, the physicist on the team, but seems to take a backseat to the language department when it’s clear that she’s onto something. He does get to do some narration in the middle about what they’ve learned, almost like we’re watching some educational show.

Colonel Weber (by the way, Whitaker is trying out some kind of accent) is always threatening to pull the plug, so Dr. Banks has to keep making persuasive arguments for her method to get more time. And the plot is much like learning language: you figure out a piece here, a piece there, they start to connect, then you realize what order they go in, and holy shit, that’s what it means!

A major concept in the movie that you wouldn’t get if this was, say, an INDEPENDENCE DAY, is the idea that the structure of your language affects how you see the world. Apparently this is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I will not be remembering that. Dr. Banks worries that the Chinese teaching the aliens through a game of chess will frame their communications as competition. This reminds me of some book I read a long time ago about semantics, which pointed out gratuitously violent metaphors in our language. The theory is that if we talk about “attacking” or “shooting down” an argument we’re already setting ourselves up for a fight instead of a discussion. I don’t know how much I believe in that, but I love it as something this linguist would be on the lookout for to avoid catastrophic misunderstandings with heptapods. Smart people care about the details.

The solution to the puzzle here is great, because it’s show-stoppingly clever while at the same time very emotional. I have heard many reports of crying, which I did not experience, but it’s fair to say that this avoids being one of those cold, distanced movies certain people (not me) hate. When you figure out what’s going on it reveals something very moving, so it engages two drastically different parts of your brain. The brain part of the brain and the heart part of the brain.

It’s also one of Adams’ best roles in a while, a quiet, composed hero who leads the way with knowledge, reason and understanding. Intellect and humanity working hand in hand. And hats off to them for keeping the name from the short story (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, adapted by Eric Heisserer [A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake, THE THING premaquel]). You don’t get many movies where the hero is named Louise. Congratulations to all the Louises of the world for this milestone.

I don’t want to raise expectations too high though, Louises and everybody else reading, because I personally didn’t have the rapturous reaction I’ve heard about from others, or had hoped for from this promising director. To me it’s no more or less than a neat little Twilight Zone type story. It’s unique and cool but kinda light, its power dissipating shortly after the credits roll. But that’s not a criticism. You’ll like it I think.

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48 Responses to “Arrival”

  1. I don’t throw this word around much, especially with regard to movies still in theaters, but this is a great movie. The themes of conflict and communication are deeply resonant to me now, and really hits all the right spots a movie should hit with me. It fits right in with the recent string of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi that shows a deep emotional intelligence. And now more than ever, I am looking forward to what he’ll do with BLADE RUNNER 2049.

  2. I didn’t care for it for the most part. You’re right, Vern, the reveal and the climax are powerful. I thought that was great and clever but the movie overall contained too many cliches (ticking time bomb with countdown screen) and too many one sentence, half assed explanations (because they watched too much Fox News). I also thought the lax security around the Shell was an all too convenient device for allowing the main characters to wander anywhere they needed to go for the story. Felt off regarding the strict procedures established earlier in the film.

    I also felt that the visual language of the aliens wasn’t given much attention by the film’s designers. I never felt like the alien coffee ring splotches they were examining felt like a coherent system of communication. Odd considering that language is a major theme of the film.

    I dunno, I guess I’ve just seen too many of these movies with the same tropes (CNN style news Montages) (Command centres with computers doing who knows what) to be fooled by the feels in to thinking this is anything more than a technical exercise before Bladerunner 2.

  3. Recently I struggle very hard to watch any of those “intellectual” SciFi movies. It’s not that SciFi needs lasers and explosion and shit to make me like it, but recently that stuff seems to be so in love with itself, as if a bunch of filmmakers try to prove how smart they are, by giving us spaceship stories with a “meaning”. And how the fans of these movies wet their underoos over them, while being completely unable to praise every new “masterpiece” of the genre without scoffing at everything else as kids stuff, makes it even worse.

    Like most people on here, I would say about myself that I have a pretty varied taste in movies and I’m far from being a snob, but there is just something off-putting about this self-congratulary subgenre and I don’t really know why I feel like that.

  4. CJ – Don’t worry, I also felt that way after Interstellar, a movie that pretended to be very smart but had a dumber script than Independence Day and I’m actually not kidding. I can’t really try to sell you on Arrival except for saying it’s probably my favorite movie of the year and it worked on every level Interstellar didn’t. The twisty story is ingenious, the acting is great without bursting into Oscar-bait histrionics. The FX, the music, the cinematography – everything is top notch. It truly feels like an indie Shane Carruth movie given a Hollywood budget. If the phrase “Terrence Malick’s Close Encounters” doesn’t intrigue you, then yeah, don’t watch it because that’s basically what this is.

    *HUGE SPOILERS*: Not only does the twist play with your expectations and knowledge of movie tropes, I also really love what they did with the “villain”. Tzi Ma plays the “scary Asian bad guy” like he usually does (That’d be funny if they tried to get Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and even though he’s not the most famous actor I thought it was weird that his entire role was seen only from a distance like on TV screens and news reports. But then he shows up in person in the flash forward and…he’s a nice guy! Just like naming the aliens Abbot and Costello immediately makes them charming and likable, showing the big bad scary Chinese General (who’s been set up the whole movie as “the other”) as a real human being, reveals that we’re all fundamentally the same – he’s also lost someone close to him, and he also only wants the best for Earth in his own way. Something so simple as “communicating and getting to know people more shows they’re not as one-dimensional as you think” sounds broad and on-the-nose on paper, but it’s wrapped up in such a beautiful and twisty story you won’t even notice.

  5. I felt this movie was a lot smarter than Interstellar, if that’s how we’re measuring these things. It’s actually one of the only recent science fiction movies that’s close to the level of where the novel is right now. It’s based on the Ted Chiang story, of course, but the stuff about language has a lot of shades of China Mieville’s Embassytown. I do feel it gets a bit too Mallick-y in its sentiment now and then, but that’s preferable to the Nolan film, where characters actually explain love to each other in scientific terms.

    Villeneuve is really a master at creating a *uniquely* foreboding ambiance in each of his films, and then populating it with actual humans.

  6. Oh, don’t worry, I will definitely watch it at some point, but most likely not until I recorded it from pay TV and it spent a few years on my shelf.

  7. I saw this movie before the election and it gave me hope that there is a way to communicate with people who seem to be speaking a different language. We have to go back to the beginning and establish the language so that people can understand we’re all talking about the same thing.

    Then I got sad because there’s no one in real life as patient as Louise to go through that whole process…

  8. Turns out the whole time the aliens were just trying to say: “I love it when you call me Big Papa.”

  9. I like how Villeneuve is establishing his signature move: smash cut to a giant scary monstrosity huddling in the corner.

    This was pretty good, but I agree with the general sentiment that it doesn’t have much staying power. It sort of felt like Villeneuve trying to do Spielberg, and mostly pulling it off, but I like his darker shit more. Give me hugh jackman destroying a sink and benicio murdering the families of drug lords, less Amy Adams parenting struggles

  10. Finally saw this last night with the unexpected result being that I kind of understand Max fucking Landis’s beef wth it. An appropriate outcome, I thought, considering the ideology and theme of the film.

    Pretty good movie overall, and that whole approach-of-and-entry-to The Shell sequence was top shelf filmatism across the board, but the indiscriminate use of “handheld shallow focus naturally lit voiceover to assume inherent honesty” stylistic trope is like anathema to me these days and this is far from the only film guilty of indulging in it.

  11. I haven’t seen PRISONERS yet, but I doubt anyone destroying a sink can top this


  12. Dewey Cox is the best. Truly the movie of the decade. It’s both a savage satire of and sincere depiction of the American hero’s journey.

  13. God it was boring.

    Who put the glass in the spaceship?
    Why is there no gravity in part of the spaceship?
    How can learning a language give you the ability to see into the future?
    How did the chinese general know what to say to Louise?

  14. Me and my partner were pregnant and lost the baby in September. This movie was like a church sermon. I cried like a bitch.

  15. I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Justin. But now you got me curious. Somebody’s gotta spoil this thing for me. I already decided I wasn’t interested in seeing the movie after having the trailer forced on me like 14 times and determining that it was just the tenth or so unofficial CHILDHOOD’S END adaptation, but all this talk of weeping makes me wonder what could possibly have that effect on that many people.

    Okay, strap in, fellas, because I’m about to go off on a rant. It might not pertain to this movie in particular but I’m going for it anyway.

    Personally, I am tired of these so-called hard sci-fi movies that pretend they’re all about science but assume I’m a dumbass who can’t relate to all that book learnin’ stuff unless there’s some cable TV melodrama about a deceased relative or a divorce or some such in there. I feel like this arbitrary Screenwriting for Dummies/Studio Executives rule is completely erroneous, a refutation of Hitchcock’s old adage that the audience will follow anyone onscreen as long as they’re good at their job, independent of any of this bullshit notion of “relatability.” This shoehorning in of a manipulative, supposedly anchoring “human story” (as if humanity knows how to tell any other kind) honestly kind of offends my sensibilities, not just because it insults my intelligence (I refer to George Lucas’ dismissiveness of the ease with which audiences allow themselves to be engaged emotionally: “If you want me to make you feel something, that’s not hard. I’ll choke a kitten in front of you, and you’ll feel something.”), but because it seems to me the whole point of hard sci-fi is to reflect upon mankind’s insignificance in the face of the infinite and unfeeling cosmos, yet most of them end up trying to convince me that the most important thing in the whole universe is our silly little meatbag feelings. I find that level of solipsism to border on the monstrous, that so many humans can look at the infinite possibility and wonder of space, cold as it is, and get bored unless they’re spoonfed the same ol’ family/relationship drama you can find in every single other kind of scripted narrative out there. I hesitate to equate this phenomenon with modern humanity’s current dismissal of facts in favor of feels at the voting booth, but I think there’s a correlation. We’re so used to being pandered to emotionally that we’re losing our ability to find beauty in ugly truths.

    So what happens at the end of this thing? I figure I’ll see it eventually, and I need to know what kind of malarkey I’m inevitably gonna end up rolling my eyes at.

  16. I hope this rant did not offend anyone who liked this movie or similar ones.

  17. Yeah, you’re not gonna like this one, then, Majestyk.


    At the beginning they make it seem that she is grieving the death of a daughter & has no partner, but it’s not clear if that was due to divorce, death, or something else for awhile. At the end you find out that actually hasn’t happened yet, but when she comes to truly understanding the alien language it unlocks time for her & she’s able to see things in the future. Now, even though she knows things are going to end sadly, she’s choosing to go forward anyway. She’s choosing to be open to life & savoring the good things as they happen.

  18. Reaction GIF

    Tagged with eye roll, Tina Fey

  19. Mr Misanthrope – You crack me up dude! I get the dislike of the overly saccharine human story in these sci-fi tales, and I find most of them pretty boring really, like Interstellar, Contact and Gravity, but if the film makers didn’t use human suffering and loss etc as parallel story lines, honestly what would they be about? Besides Eddie Murphy on Pluto. Even Star Wars is a soap opera at it’s human level. These “hard” sci-fi’s as you call them are just a bit more pondering (boring), so their not my cup of tea either.

  20. Now that we’re in (SPOILER) mode I’d like to bounce off some of the great points Majestyk made about this film and other films like it.

    I could not be more strongly opposed to the shoehorning of trite, emotionally manipulative bullshit into a (in this case sci-fi) story that would stand perfectly firm without it. GRAVITY and ARRIVAL, in particular, are egregious examples of this, in which the emotional, human elements are either tangentially related to the film at hand or not related at all.

    ARRIVAL is, I think, an exceptionally well made movie with some interesting ideas and a worthwhile central message, but I genuinely do not understand how the emotional back/front story of the central character (a twist, by the way, that I figured out within the first five minutes and spent the rest of the movie hoping I was wrong about) connects to the film in any meaningful way at all, either narratively or thematically. It has literally no bearing whatsoever on the general conflict of and resolution to the “alien invasion” plot, although it is an interesting philosophical exploration on its own terms. Unfortunately, it also has no bearing whatsoever on how the central character who is experiencing these emotions deals *specifically* with any of the alien shit in the film. It’s like two pieces of bread sitting atop each other with no good shit in the middle to make them stick.

    Just to clarify, I am a big fan of incidental details in stories that help develop character without necessarily furthering the plot, but there is nothing at all incidental about the deadvorced shit in ARRIVAL.

    I thought INTERSTELLAR was storytelling garbage but at least its cornball schmaltz was interwoven into the central narrative from the start, as stupid and as ineffective as that weaving may have been.

    Also, nothing about this film or any films like it are hard sci-fi, regardless of how many people (not you Majestyk) keep calling them that.

  21. I just want them to be about what they’re about. An example is APOLLO 13. Nobody got redeemed or learned to deal with loss or any of that shit. They were just people doing a really difficult and awesome thing, and that’s why we gave a shit. Because they were the people who could do that thing. I think that’s what people actually respond to–seeing characters in action, doing what they do, how they do it–more than these readymade backstory nodules that come installed with a preprogrammed, all-purpose character arc.

  22. ARRIVAL is also the first time I have ever seen a movie with an audience who collectively preempted a character’s final line of dialogue in verbal unison.

  23. I loved this movie. I’m a big fan of Ted Chiang and this story in particular, and it captured the spirit of it more than I would have thought was possible. I liked INTERSTELLAR, CONTACT etc., but in those movies the sci-fi and drama never really gel. In ARRIVAL it works because it keeps the emotional core on a small scale, only using it to do what sci-fi is supposed to do, which is take a crazy concept and show how it affects human society/experience. The human drama is used to illuminate the sci-fi concepts, not the other way around. The book is able to explain this more clearly, but in learning the alien language (which has no conception of linear time) Louise is not so much able to see the future, but more that she is experiencing all time simultaneously. The knowledge that her daughters life ends tragically doesn’t diminish her experience, instead she’s able to appreciate life in a completely different way than other humans. It’s the whole “journey, not the destination” writ large. If anything it does the opposite of what you’re saying.

    But you still probably wouldn’t like it, Majestyk. She doesn’t ramp a car up off a bridge and shove a firebomb up an alien’s butthole for starters.

  24. Majestyk – It’s like being stranded out in space and having to do unimaginable, life-risking shit to get back home again in one piece isn’t a compelling enough reason to watch a movie, but throw a dead kid in there and we’re gold. THE MARTIAN did a good job of steering clear of that sort of thing. I personally thought the film was an instantly forgettable nothing-movie, but props to it for sticking with the program.

    For a recent example of a movie with filled with manipulative emotional shit that I was totally fine with, please look no further than THE SHALLOWS.

  25. ARRIVAL: It works thematically because it ties into the way the human conception of time limits our perception. It’s asking the question “is a life worth living even if it ends tragically”? If we were able to see our lives as part of great continuum rather than a set of discrete, causal events, we’d be less concerned with the short-term and with the threat of our own mortality. It’s the same reason why she’s able to bring humanity together at the end, because she’s able to see beyond the short-term thinking that drives most conflict.

  26. Whoops, that was meant to be MIXALOT:, not ARRIVAL:

  27. CrustaceanLove: I understand that’s what it was going for, but I personally don’t see how it has any relevance to the outcome of the story in any way. (SPOILERS OF COURSE) The reason she is able to bring humanity together at the end is because learning an alien language allowed her to see into the future and hear some clunky expositional dialogue from a Chinese general at some sort of gala event. I honestly don’t see what her personal tragedy has to do with any of this at all. Why couldn’t she just be a kick-ass linguist whose patience, empathy and expertise saved the day (which it did). Why did she also have to be a grieving mom and divorcee?

    I guess what I’m asking is – if you took the tragic shit out of the film, or didn’t have it in there as a weird temporal twist, would the story still hold. In my opinion, it would. In fact, I think it would hold even firmer. If it works for you, great. But it didn’t work for me and I actually found it to be distracting and unnecessary.

    Also I appreciate that no one is getting into all the time paradox shit associated with this thing because we’re all grown ups here who know what’s good for us.

  28. CrustaceanLove: You can call me ARRIVAL anytime

  29. MIXALOT: I see it the other way around. I’m less concerned with the plot mechanics than with the sci-fi concepts and themes of the film and how it illustrates them. Everything to do with her daughter forms the backbone of the film. It’s a film that finds profundity in the personal. Everything involving the multiple landing sites, the political tensions and ticking clock was not in the original story and purely an invention of the screenplay. I think the plotline worked much better than I was expecting (and I love that the whole situation was defused with communication instead of confrontation) and I get that something like that is necessary when you’re adapting a very short, nearly plotless short story into a feature film, but it does change the focus of the film to something more narrative-driven and ironically more linear. The whole point of the film is that she’s not a “grieving mom”, by existing outside of time she’s unwilling/unable to see the events of her (or her daughter’s) life defined by the “outcome”.

  30. CrustaceanLove: I guess for me the film was so busy twisting itself into knots to avoid directly confronting the emotional twist/resolution, or labouring to narratively set it up, that it just rang completely false. Therefore the concept of her existing outside of time and not being beholden to the same rigid linear strictures as other human beings didn’t feel organic to the story I was being told on a narrative, thematic or emotional level. I dunno, it just felt like a lot of ring jumping for not much payoff.

    Also, and I sincerely want help understanding this from anyone who can give it to me, how does the emotional throughline of her story have any thematic relevance to the main plot of figuring out the purpose of the aliens’ arrival and preventing a terrible xenocidal tragedy? I totally get what it is the film is doing and trying to say with regards to its concepts etc but I genuinely want to understand how one aspect of the movie (communication, empathy, perseverance, trust) relates in any way to the other (journey not destination etc). Except for how I guess her decision at the end, based on her ability to experience time differently (and very plot specifically) to everyone else, does negate several of the themes established in the main narrative of the film. And not in a way that I think was intentional.

  31. By the way, like I said earlier I thought this was a pretty good film. Its heart was in the right place, it had some kick ass filmatism going on and I appreciated its dedication to conflict resolution being achieved through non-violent means. But I did not buy the human element of the story at all even though Amy Adams sold the shit out of it with her fantastic performance.

  32. CrustaceanLove: (SPOILERS)



    In what way is she not a grieving mom? Her daughter died and she was distraught about it on, as the film establishes, multiple levels. Her life and the life of the loved ones around her may no longer be defined by their outcome but that doesn’t mean the outcome doesn’t still kick her in the balls. She certainly looked like she was grieving to me when she was in the hospital with her dying kid.

    I just don’t understand what that aspect of the film is trying to convey. We all die. Bad shit is bound to happen to all of us at some stage of our life. If you bring a child into this world these results are inevitable. I guess I don’t understand how knowing any of these things for a certainty is something I should feel is profound or illuminating.

    And I gotta be honest, using a dead kid as a plot twist is pretty manipulative. People might not give a shit about the plot mechanics of this thing, but they are there in full effect and they’re rusty as hell. At any point in the film Louise could have expressed concern over the fact she was having distressing dreams about a dying daughter she never had and then come to a personal realisation about it as the story progresses in natural and organic way. But instead the movie kept its cards hid (not very well in my opinion) to drop the “gotcha” on us late in the game. I guess you can argue that it fits in with the notions of nonlinearity going on but I’m personally not buying it. It felt really cheap to me.

  33. Mixalot – Just wondering, what is your definition of hard sci-fi, if this, INTERSTELLAR, GRAVITY, etc. are not it?

  34. I was less excited for this one when it finally came out and I was warned that it was yet another movie that played the festival circuit that the critics/bloggers were over-hyping because it was “pretty good” or “different”. I’ll wait for the hype to die down and give it a try. Don’t want this to be another VVITCH situation (yes I finally saw it and did not like it (sorry Mix) but not seeing it when it came out and being warned it was not the movie critics/bloggers were telling me softened the blow.

    My brother and I have been making jokes for years that “real sci-fi” is translation for “really boring movie in space.” I really loved GRAVITY but must agree that movie would have been better if they excised the stupid dead kid subplot. Even SUNSHINE gave lead guy a family back home to miss but I can forgive a movie that starts as a good REAL sci-fi story and then turns into a trashy slasher movie in a move that seems to happen just to fuck with the prudes who were liking the movie for being “real science fiction.”

    At the risk of being ‘weeaboo’ I must say that this discussion reminds me of another reason I loved SHIN GODZILLA so much: no family/personal bullshit, just professionals doing their job and working together to solve an issue. No romance subplot, no family drama. Since the movie is about us humans working together so we can preserver as a species, it qualifies as “real sci-fi” to boot.

  35. It seems to me like a lot of criticism here is mostly “why isn’t this a different type of movie”. Well it’s the other one.

    There is 0 difference between the deeply personal and the broadly universal. When you zoom in or out far enough the universe looks literally the same: tons of empty space with the occasional scattered galaxy/subatomic particle. Both are always beheld in the end by flawed, subjective humans with perceptional biases.

    GRAVITY is about the fucking plight of life to survive. DNA crawled out of the primordial ooze/hydrothermal vents onto land, and stood up and walked. There was nothing remotely arbitrary about the personal/emotional component of GRAVITY, it symbolizes the struggle of the living creature to exist and evolve, and eventually transcend.

    In ARRIVAL, she chooses to go ahead and have this child even knowing that it is going to result in tragedy. This exactly the same as when, at the end of ETERNAL SUNSHINE, they decide to fall in love (again) even knowing that it will result in disaster. You don’t think that sentiment is at all relevant to a film about the world’s superpowers overcoming their fear and cynicism about the future and choosing instead to work together?

    I didn’t have the sublime experience many did with this film, and I thought the twist was handled rather inelegantly on a time-paradox-bullshit-o-meter compared to INTERSTELLAR. But this whole idea that it’s somehow *not* hard sci-fi because it has human feewings is completely incomprehensible to me.

  37. Renfield, I agree with you. Science fiction is often about the basics of being human once an element of our present is changed, like a differential introduced to rats in a science experiment. But I understand the feeling of cheap sentiment when the human element is relegated to backstory or B-story, and a case could be made that that’s what happens in GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR. Coming off these films, the nature of motherhood in ARRIVAL may be a cliche device, but it’s tied into the film’s main thrust: It’s about making sense of a new form of time and communication. Ideally, the fantastical elements aren’t separate from the human ones.

  38. Ugh. I just saw this tonight, and… ugh.

    The movie had a lot going for it for the first hour and then it just fell apart for me. It was basically like M. Night Shyalaman, post-Sixth Sense. Okay, not that bad. Maybe the idea was not terrible, and the execution was fine, but come on people you can’t have a hard sci-fi movie with this many ridiculous plot holes.


    1. Seriously, spoilers.
    2. If the aliens can see the future, why didn’t Abbott save himself from the bomb? Are they like the aliens in Slaugherhouse-5 where (SPOILERS) they see all time at once, and blow up the universe with an experiment, but don’t bother changing their minds and not blow up the universe because that’s just what happened, at that point in time?
    3. How do you carry on a conversation, or do experiments, or bother doing anything at all, when time is all happening at once, anyway? How do you learn when learning is a process inextricably linked to time? Why can’t the aliens immediately communicate with us, because they can already see how we communicate later on in the movie? Oh, because they don’t adapt to us at all in the movie, we have to come to them and learn their language. Part of that laziness inspired by omniscience. Oh wait, see point #6 below. Why couldn’t the aliens understand English right away?
    4. The alien design was sufficiently weird and cool, and I figured they would reveal that what we had seen previous to the “big reveal” was only part of the aliens, but why the smokey room? Louise could breathe the alien’s air apparently. Why the glass? Plot convenience, apparently.
    5. Why have a really fucking weird alien, then reveal that what we saw up to this point was only 1/5 of the alien, and then have the rest of the alien shaped vaguely like an Oscar statue (hint hint, Academy voters) with a head and shoulders and everything. And have the camera focus on the alien’s head when it talks. Sorry, you just blew your weird alien cred. You had it, and you lost it. You could have taken a weird alien and gone way weirder, and instead you made it less weird.
    6. I was wondering how Louise was going to communicate with the aliens when she ran off and got into the ship by herself. She forgot her little iPad (was there product placement in this movie? I didn’t see it). No problem, the alien can now conveniently understand English. WTF?
    7. Louise’s conversation with the Chinese general is a time traveler “you are your own grandfather” kind of logic, but whatever.
    8. Guess what? Louise’s daughter isn’t born yet, and her father is (obviously, by the law of conservation of characters) Jeremy Rinner. Sometime in the future Jeremy takes off and leaves Louise because… why? She decided to have the kid anyway, even though she could see the future and knew about the cancer. Soooooo… why didn’t Jeremy know this too? Can’t he learn the alien language and see the future? How could he be surprised?

    I guess the end was supposed to be a tear-jerker about how life is beautiful even though it hurts, or something. I was too annoyed by all of the above to care.

  39. You people are bumming me out. This was a strong sci-fi film, and I never felt like the emotional stuff was shoehorned in in the same manner as Gravity (a film I liked despite the “tragic backstory” element) and Interstellar (a film I genuinely did not like). The personal story works for me because its far better integrated into the narrative than in the other two films.

    Also, the film actually spends some time explaining the alien language and the difficulties of communicating with people who write and think in completely different ways. It would have been interesting to have more of that stuff, but I didn’t feel like they were quickly moving past that material because they were afraid to bore their audience, like Interstellar did. Like any film with [spoilers] time travel elements, you can nitpick, but you can also make assumptions about how (possibly imperfect) knowledge of the future could easily explain these “plotholes.” In other words, just because the film didn’t explain everything to you, doesn’t mean there isn’t a simple explanation.

  40. RBatty024 – It’s awesome that the emotional elements worked for you, but they didn’t work for me and for a few other people who saw it and I think that is an equally valid response to the film. To be honest, the emotional stuff in THE SHALLOWS worked for me better than the emotional stuff in ARRIVAL.

    I have to go and say a thing now, and I apologise in advance for this, but I think the criticism of people “nitpicking” things is one of the most defeatist forms of creative debate. If fundamental issues with the structural mechanisms of your film prevent people from buying into it, then their issues are not nitpicks. The argument that plot holes in such films are interpretive doesn’t hold any water for me. Anything that doesn’t adhere to its own internal logic could be given a pass using that excuse.


    Obviously to convey the emotional message of the film Dr. Banks only ever flashes forwards to moments and events pertinent to that cause, but isn’t that just as base and emotionally manipulative as other films we’d be happy to see people take issue with? If she begins experiencing time differently to everyone else – not as a linear sequence of events but as something more fluid and untethered – then why do we only ever see the same specific moments in time that directly relate to her tragedy and loss? Aside from “because it’s emotional” or “because we’re setting up a twist”? I can’t invest in something that changes its own rules to try to make me feel a certain way without earning it. Sure, instances like the part with General Shang at the gala event drove me nuts from an internal logic perspective (and I know there has been plenty of time travel related shade throw at this thing which I won’t bother getting into) but I let that shit slide because those scenes were at least in service of moving the plot and themes forward. That’s a narrative cheat, but I can deal with it. What I can’t deal with is being told to buy into something that is supposed to affect me emotionally when I can smell from a mile away that it’s leaking bullshit like a broke down jalopy leaks oil.

    I guess taking issue with any of the things that people have found problematic about the film could be classified as “nitpicking” but I dunno – “nitpicking” to me is being pedantic and unreasonable with respect to the item you’re taking issue with. And when your issue is with the entire emotional core that the item is built upon then I think you’re long past the point of picking nits.


    The perception of time, and the ability to see the future, was a central part of the film, including a huge part of its emotional payoff. Screwing up the implications of this newfound ability in such basic and obvious ways is just bad screenwriting and feels like cheating.

  42. I would like to say that I liked the movie very much up until the last half hour or so, including the deciphering of the alien language and discussing how language and words influence perceptions, etc. That was all good stuff. It felt a little SOLARIS-inspired. If the payoff at the end had made more sense to me I might have loved the movie but it was not to be. I actually would have preferred no payoff whatsoever to what they came up with — just have the aliens leave a message, we can’t figure it out, they leave, the end.

  43. rainman – I’m not sure why you would think hard sci-fi can’t have ridiculous plot holes. Any genre can have bad writing. Having said that I don’t think your list contains many things I’d call a plot hole.


    1. Yeah, same here.

    2. To me the movie seems to be suggesting a deterministic view of the universe. So he has to blow up. Yes, this is like the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five. That’s what I was reminded of while watching it.

    3. Time isn’t all happening at once. They are just aware of the past & future, just as we are aware of our own pasts. That doesn’t mean we experienced our entire history all at once. Also, the whole point of their showing up was to teach us their language, not communicate to us in ours. Apparently they subscribe to the Berlitz total immersion school of language learning. (Also, I’m not sure they are able to communicate to us in English. We never see them do it.)

    4. Not sure about the air. I thought they mention early on the aliens have to create a breathable atmosphere for us in the anteroom. So why can she breathe, communicate and have not great CGI hair in that room? This is the only thing on your list that I’d think is a possible plot hole, but I don’t buy it. That scene seems slightly different from the rest of the film. I feel like something is up there that I didn’t spot. Some kind of dream sequence? My general rule of thumb is that anything I see as a possible discrepancy on a single viewing is something the writer would have definitely noticed by draft 10 or so. (He said he did like 100 over the years.) I don’t think my two hours with the film outweighs the years and years the writer and directors spent with it. When in doubt, tie goes to the filmmakers in my opinion. They’ve thought about this movie a lot more than I have. So I’m unwilling to just dismiss this as a plot hole.

    5. I can’t argue with your personal alien design preference. Maybe they should have went with a Golden Globe alien. Don’t they know Oscar voters don’t like genre films?

    6. Hadn’t she already communicated with them by manipulating their squid ink through the glass by this point? Or was that later?

    7. In a deterministic universe which only has one possible future outcome I’m not sure if this would actually be a paradox. This doesn’t really seem any different than the aliens coming here in the first place because they know they have to set the stage for an event 3000 years later. Memories from our past can affect our actions in the present. It seems plausible to me that if you could remember time in both directions memories from the future could also affect your actions in the present, leading to the one possible future outcome.

    8. Maybe it’s too difficult to learn except for people extremely adept at languages. Or maybe he doesn’t like the idea of knowing all his future holds. Or maybe he’s too busy fighting Thanos and doesn’t have time to learn it. To me there are plausible enough reasons for why he wouldn’t know his own future that this seems more like a nitpick.

  44. I’m not trying to say that if you didn’t like the movie, your experience is illegitimate. But I do think, as Jake points out, there are explanations for plenty of supposed plot points. This doesn’t mean the movie is automatically good. You can still dislike it, but I think the simple explanation that even people who can perceive the future may not have full knowledge of the future, just like how our memories of the past are often fuzzy and incomplete, solves plenty of those concerns.

    MIXALOT – It’s funny that you mention The Shallows. I just watched that movie last night, and I ultimately liked it. It was alternately clever and really dumb, but the combination worked for me. And yet I still had problems with the fact that they had to shoehorn in the stupid backstory with the mother. They even gave the shark motivation! (Although, I’ll admit that I really liked that part of the film as dumb as it was). I guess the emotional elements in the Arrival didn’t seem as superfluous to me.

  45. Just watched this last night and enjoyed it. I’m surprised at the love for ARRIVAL over INTERSTELLAR here. To me, ARRIVAL is a fun movie with a much smaller scale goal that it more or less achieves. Montana looks pretty. Amy Adams is a great actress. The filmatism is strong. But to me the things ARRIVAL does well are done better in other movies by orders of magnitude.

    Majestyk, in my circle of buddies we call the shoehorned melodrama, “I hate my dad” for short/generalization. As in, “This week’s episode of The Walking Dead had some cool parts, but too much I hate my dad.”

  46. Hey Vern!

    I know I’m late to the party…so you can just slap me instead of reading this…but you said Jurassic Park and I think you meant Sphere.

    Totally understandable mistake man! I mean, they’ve got like – the same Author, Director, and Actors even. I do it all the time. It’s just that of these three, two are about aliens and the unknown while one is about dinosaurs and visual iconography.

  47. The Undefeated Gaul

    February 2nd, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    I liked how, near the end of the film, when all the alien ships move into a horizontal position and there is a possibility that the shit is about to hit the fan, they look EXACTLY like INDEPENDENCE DAY ships. The filmmakers must’ve done that on purpose to increase the tension, to make us think the aliens were about to unleash destruction upon the world, while in fact, they were just trying to teach us a neat new language.

    I don’t really know what to make of this film overall. It was interesting and gripping to watch the mystery slowly unfold, but I too felt the whole dead daughter thing was emotionally manipulative in a way that I did not appreciate. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have two little girls of my own and I resent anything that even makes me think of this type of shit being a possibility in life, but it took me out of the movie. I too thought all the other stuff was gripping enough by itself, why drag a fucking dead kid into the whole thing and ruin it?

    Also, how fucking selfish of Adams’ character to decide and have the kid anyway. What about the kid – knowing this would’ve been the way it ended, with suffering and terrible pain, would she have chosen to be born? Adams decided that for her – she basically forced a kid to go through hell while it could’ve remained blissfully unborn. Same goes for Renner’s character, he had no say in this. What if he would’ve gotten the choice upfront? NO FATHER WOULD’VE SAID, fuck it, let’s do it anyway, I’ll enjoy getting deeply emotionally involved with my little girl and then having my heart torn from my fucking chest. That’s the ultimate tragedy you’re forcing upon someone, it’s cruel and heartless and selfish is what it is.

    So yeah, the movie would’ve been better without all that shit, plus Adams would’ve been a much more sympathetic character.

  48. Am late to the party having watched it recently.

    I’d agree with Mixalot here and the more I think about it the more I’m annoyed at 2 things in particular. The first and worst is the manipulation of events to ensure Ian is never in the picture during the flashforward events, even at the hospital deathbed of his own daughter. The game would have been up had that happened, or probably more accurately the game would never have started. It is just as bad as Shmyalan pulling my pants over my head with The Sixth Sense during all of those scenes where he’s dead but edited in such a way as to pick out just the bits they want e.g. out with his wife at dinner. You never once see him saying to her, “Hello…errrmmm…Hellllooooooooo? Why are you ignoring me? HELLOOOOOO!!!!”

    And the way they were able to do that here was to mistreat Ian horribly, because his whole character is depicted as caring and sensitive – he’s even willing to take a bullet so she can complete the phone call. I can’t equate that Ian with the one who doesn’t love his own daughter and leaves the family when he knows she is dying. And had I been Renner I think I’d have questioned the way they were treating his character.

    I can accept flying saucers, alien squids firing magic ink, time travel, death stars, photon torpedoes, zombies and batmen but they all have to exist within their own logic and I shouldn’t be thinking afterwards that they have hoodwinked me, but not in a good hoodwink way.

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