Arrival was the fucking worst

Before I get started, a few things to clarify. First, I’m going to spoil absolutely everything; personally, I think I’m doing people who haven’t yet subjected themselves to this movie a favor, but make responsible choices. Second, this is definitely a case of trying-and-failing being worse than not-trying-at-all. Arrival does definitely try, but it’s hard to name anything that it succeeds at.

Let’s dive in.

First of all, trying. “Trying.” Arrival aggressively signals how hard it’s trying, mostly in the same way that director Villeneuve’s previous major release, Sicario, did: by being as Terrence-Malick-y as humanly possible. Wide environmental shots, wide environmental shots with out-of-focus focal points looming in the background, intense shaky-cam half-of-face or half-of-arm closeups, conversations filmed outdoors at yes-I-know-it’s-poorly-lit times of day… we’ve got it all!

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In a successful movie, this wouldn’t be any kind of problem—Terrence Malick does it, after all, and I like him fine. In a movie whose story gestures at such massive ideas, though, and fails so awfully to do them any justice, it’s just grating.

The real problem with this movie, though, is its plot. Again, granting the film’s ambition—the story is about how narratives collapse in a perspective that stands outside of time—we can agree that it’s hard even to imagine what a truly successful attempt at translating this plot to the screen would look like. With that said, almost all of the crucial moments that set up or advance Arrival’s plot just miss the mark completely.

Consider the first sequence of the film, in which we see Amy Adams’ daughter grow older and die, which we are led to believe (by our merely-human notions of continuity) is a flashback. In fact, as we discover in the third-act reveal, this is a flash-forward. The problem with this is that that same reveal gives flash-forwards a very specific significance: they represent Amy Adams’ moments of extra-causal awareness of her own future, enabled by her increasing understanding of the Heptapods’ language. In the first scene, she cannot have had that understanding, having not learned the language. We must instead be flashing forward to a time after she has learned the language, and is therefore able to flash further forward to see her daughter’s life and death. (In case you’re feeling argumentative and want to claim that maybe she had the timeless awareness even before the aliens came because causality-whatever-mumbo-jumbo-garbage, it is absolutely confirmed that she did not. In the first sequence, her voiceover talks about knowing the beginning, middle and end of her daughter’s life, whereas later in the movie, we hear her say “Who is that girl?”, since she at that time had not seen enough of her daughter’s life to know who she was.)

So, in a movie about the dissolution of narrative and causality in a timeless perspective, we start with a flash-forward-that-looks-like-a-flashback… why? Just so that the viewers will be confused and surprised by that third-act reveal. This is just lazy.


Digging further into the action, at every moment where another character has to interact with Amy Adams to move the plot forward, they completely fail to act like any facsimile of a human. The first of two egregious examples is her “selection” as the head translator at the Montana site. The supposed basis of this decision is a “Guess what I have in my pocket?” pseudo-quiz, where she is able to answer a question she posed herself, while her off-screen rival from Berkeley cannot. What kind of moron would take this seriously? Why doesn’t Forest Whitaker ask her the definition of some word Berkeley Guy knows? Because this movie is the fucking worst, that’s why.

Second, more crucially, and far more painfully: the anti-causal game of telephone with Tzi Ma, the Chinese general, in which present Amy Adams remembers when future Amy Adams will be told Tzi Ma’s wife’s last words, and relays those words to present Tzi Ma over a satellite phone. This entire plot point is made possible because we are supposed to believe that this man would walk up to her, at a United Nations function, and instead of saying “How in the world did you know my dying wife’s last words and my private number?” or, even more plausibly, “It’s great to meet you in person, complete stranger,” he instead says, “These are my dying wife’s last words, which I was surprised to hear you say to me—I felt it was important that you should hear them” [disgusted italics my own]. The swelling music, and the rest of the movie’s self-seriousness, indicate we are meant to accept this as an unannotated part of the deeply unironic plot, but in what world could we possibly do so? In what world would any human act the way this supposed world leader acts? Yes, I know I’ve ended the last two paragraphs with rhetorical questions, but that’s just how mad I am.

Not only does the plot of this movie collapse under the weight of any scrutiny, these vital moments were so unbelievable that I wasn’t even able to nod along as they happened.

At nearly the same level of offensiveness, the international cooperation plot gets tied off so lazily it seems like they almost forgot it was happening. In the aftermath of the soldiers’ attack on the Montana ship, Jeremy Renner makes the supposedly portentous discovery that the cloud of symbols filled exactly one-twelfth of the space around them, which is supposed to indicate that the twelve nations need to work together in order to receive the Heptopods’ “weapon.” But then, not only do they not need to work together, but even the full team at the Montana site isn’t needed—Amy Adams figures the whole thing out herself by flying off to the Heptopods’ ship alone, and then also forestalls interstellar war by herself, using the aforementioned future-to-past game of telephone.

The game of telephone even fails to yield a moment of cooperation as its resolution: “I know things I can’t possibly know,” she implicitly tells Tzi Ma, “so you have to do as I say.” This is not cooperation, it is coercion.


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The end of Arrival pushes in the knife, making the blades of each of these artistic and narrative failures cut more painfully. Inexorably, we arrive at Amy Adams telling Jeremy Renner she wants to have a baby, in a context where we know he will regard that very decision, years later, as so cruel that he won’t be able to stay married to her, since she doesn’t share her foreknowledge of their daughter’s death with him until she’s at least ten. We are meant to see this as a triumphant act, embracing love in the face of death, but the refusal to share that information with him makes her choice painfully selfish and inhuman, rather than a celebration of humanity.


The short story on which the script was based, “Story of Your Life,” suffers from none of these framing problems, because it’s straightforward about the circularity of its timeline: “I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You’ll be coloring…” This sentence comes relatively early on, while we have formed no preconceptions about when or how this daughter has come to be. By making the confusion of timelines part of the story, rather than What a Twist! finale, Ted Chiang’s story makes itself richer and more interesting than Arrival, as written, could possibly be. We certainly don’t know why the tenses are so strange as we begin to read through “Story of Your Life,” but living with that strangeness, as it bleeds into the scientific-discovery half of the narrative, makes a much stronger story than Arrival’s relatively pat flashbacks-that-aren’t-flashbacks. The existence of this refined version of the narrative, strangely, doesn’t redeem Arrival’s ham-handedness, it just makes it more painful [I think the fact that this is the fifth use of the word “painful” is a pretty good window into your psychological state whenever you think about this movie. –Nerdy Spice]. Not only is the movie bad, it’s also disappointing.

Sigh. We really couldn’t find ten movies better than this one this year, Oscars?

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