Movie Review: Arrival

I wanted to like Arrival. I really did. I knew the actual linguistics aspect of it was going to be minimal, but even so I want more of these movies, the science fiction that isn’t just “war in space” given proper treatment on the big screen.

But as you can infer from that first paragraph, I just didn’t find it very good.

Arrival is a “first contact” movie, meaning it’s a movie about humanity’s first encounter with an alien species. Of course, an alien species doesn’t necessarily communicate anything like humans do, so they need to bring in an expert linguist to figure out how to even begin talking. The movie is told from the perspective of the linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, who has been haunted by visions of her daughter who died of cancer as a teenager.

That’s most of it. Banks gets sent to the military corral cordoning off one of the alien ships, and then the attempt at communication plays out, along with the geopolitics associated with first contact. And some strange things happen along the way.

Arrival was originally a short story (Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”), and in a way I think that was its undoing. Small problems that might have gotten a pass in a short story continued to bother me throughout the movie, and the ultimate conceit (the big reveal) didn’t feel believable—it was clever, but felt out of place given the setup the movie had given it. There were also a number of very basic, seemingly obvious things about the linguistics and science that just felt wrong to me, despite the writers having consulted real linguists in creating the screenplay. I don’t want to say “I could have done this first contact better” but some things were just silly.

Besides these story issues, the composition of the movie wasn’t particularly exciting either. The color correction felt dreary and uninspired (the former deliberate, the latter probably not). The music was mostly unmemorable, except for one particular interesting track that didn’t really fit what was being shown on screen. In discussing the movie with my aunt she also complained about the story dragging in the middle; the pacing didn’t bother me so much but it certainly wasn’t gripping.

I do want to give the movie credit for some things: the aliens were not automatically humanoid (and I’ll allow them what they were), some of the linguistic exchange was the “right thing” in establishing common understanding, and the geopolitics seemed plausible and provided an important and realistic sense of urgency. And it was a story with a female lead, and without presenting her as some hidden beauty.

But on that note, my aunt pointed out that Dr. Banks falls into some kind of rule about lead women in movies—they can’t have a successful career and a happy family, and so since Banks is smart and successful her daughter “has” to die. (TV shows are a little different because they can scatter conflicts across several episodes, rather than just doing one big thing to the character.)

The two of us discussed this a bit, and agreed that no main character can ever “have it all”, but that there was still something to specifically “punishing” women in this way. I haven’t read the original story yet, but I would guess this criticism goes to Chiang rather than the screenwriters. (Of course the story doesn’t work as well if Banks’ daughter lives, but that’s true of many tropey ordeals that are also sexist.)

In any case, both of us were overall disappointed with the movie, since it could have done so much more. (Both of us would have liked to see more of the “middle” stage of linguistics, with Banks working through the samples they had, but I wasn’t surprised that they kept it short.) So in closing, I’m going to suggest some alternatives:

  • Time travel and romance: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (book).
  • First contact: Decision at Doona, by Anne McCaffrey (book). Also skips the most difficult part of learning to communicate, but everything else is good.
  • Cross-species interaction: District 9, a movie from several years back. I wasn’t too impressed with the story but the world-building is top-notch.
  • Aliens and geopolitics: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (book). Separates the “interacting with aliens” part from the “reactions on Earth” part, while weaving in modern Chinese history.

I really do want to see more science fiction films that include “science” and don’t focus on violence or disasters. But Arrival just didn’t do it for me.

See also my comparison with the original short story, “Story of Your Life”.