Spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t watched Arrival, Interstellar or Midnight Special.
Arrival is part of the usual Oscar circlejerk right now but I actually left the cinema feeling underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is good, especially on a technical level, but I wasn’t happy with the way Villeneuve balanced the sci-fi with the personal emotion of the film’s protagonist.
Weirdly enough, a friend recommended this movie to me as “what Interstellar was supposed to be”, and while I do think it’s a better movie than Interstellar, it has the same pitfalls; focusing very hard on the science of the premise before making a hardcore switch to character drama. This movie spends the first hour and a half or so dealing with how humans would realistically deal with an alien encounter, and it does this extremely well. Suddenly, the film’s themes change to predeterminism and eternalism in its final act. I don’t mean that there isn’t any foreshadowing- there’s clever misdirection and anachrony, but other than the plot twist being that the flashback that starts the film is actually a flashforward, the film does little to actually flesh out the non-linear perception of time. Moreover, there is only one line in the film about the protagonist asking her would-be fiance if he would change anything if he could perceive time in a non-linear fashion, before she decides she will appreciate every moment.
However, for the above idea to work, the film would have to show instances of her breaking away from predestination, to show the consequences of free will, but the film conveniently eschews that for a soap opera with the protagonist and her daughter (gee, does that sound familiar). Of course that in itself isn’t a sin, but my problem with modern sci-fi movies is this, jamming emotion and science into a movie. Of course, great sci-fi, or rather, great movies have emotional impacts that far outweigh the scientific accuracy of the film, but it becomes jarring when the film does not to bridge the two halves. The protagonist barely shows any form of chemistry between her and her future spouse (and even more annoying, it tried to hide the obvious fact that he would indeed be her spouse in the future). There is one throwaway line in the beginning with the daughter shouting “I hate you!” at her mother, but there seems to be no reason to believe the relationship between mother and daughter has anything meaningful for her to remember. Watch any family drama or character-relationship movie, there will always be friction scenes in between. The only real friction in this film is not even for the protagonist, but at the bureaucratic level with the nations struggling to achieve consensus (a theme that is also wrapped up with a soapy emotional beat rather than an exploration of international conflict). As with Interstellar, the film puts in a lot of effort into hard science but decides to answer all its questions with vaguely emotional moments, a trend which doesn’t sit too well with me.
In contrast, there has been another sci-fi family drama earlier
this year last year that I genuinely enjoyed- Midnight Special. Unlike Arrival, the scientific aspect of the film is barely explored and serves as backdrop to the character drama. Unlike Arrival, the protagonist is not a scientist or a learned individual in any way, but a simple father trying to find a solution for his son. The film also has a consistent theme of dealing with loss, explored via various characters who are connected to the child with strange powers. There is also some clever characterization, with a scientist working with the government becoming more spiritual as he interacts with a power or phenomenon he cannot understand. The film also shows government and religious responses to the child, without in any way undermining their role to society in real life. It’s a simple, heartfelt film that is cathartic for parents who have had to lose a child. There is a lot of back and forth with the child and the father, before the father finally agrees to trust his son and let him go- so that the child’s departure is truly earned in the movie.
In Arrival, we know nothing about the character’s daughter other than her use as a plot gimmick.
On the philosophical spectrum, the last sci-fi movie that I’ve seen that presented two sides to an idea was The Matrix and it’s sequel. Even if it’s on the nose, it added on to the intellectual experience, because you see both the idea of free will and predeterminism (the Wachowskis tie it up in a very Vedic way), and when you leave the cinema, you can choose your takeaway from the movie. Nobody in Arrival acts out in his, her or its free will, providing no contrast to the protagonist’s convenient desire to accept and appreciate her fate. The protagonist is not given any choice in the film, nothing for her to choose to walk away from. So why does she choose to appreciate anything? Is it even a choice for her to appreciate? If I could perceive time like she did and have no idea what would happen if I changed fate, why would I think it’s better to accept things the way they are?
The film tried to do a lot of things and didn’t flash out a lot that could have made a much bigger impact.
But that’s just my opinion.
Cinematographer deserves an award for the shot when they walk up the alien ship, though.