When it comes science-fiction films, the media runs in very particular circles. Critics love what they love, which tends to be very formulaic. This is why so many movies in the science-fiction genre get snubbed or completely overlooked. Case and point, Prometheus, a film that only garnered a 72% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and not a lot of love from major film critics. For fans of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this was a film they’d (myself included) had been looking forward to for quite some time. It performed decently at the Box Office and raised a lot of interesting questions, not just about the mythology of the franchise, but about life itself. It didn’t redefine the genre by any means, but it definitely was not worthy of all the hate it got from Salon, The New York Times, Variety and other big name publications who seem to pride themselves on snobby journalism. Last year’s Jurassic World got similar treatment. Yes, it doesn’t really have anything to do with space, but like Prometheus, it was another film that regular folk enjoyed quite a bit, and it did amass $1.6 billion in box office revenue. Despite this, it also only garnered a 72% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and The Associated Press said it was “an ugly, over-saturated movie.” What this proves, besides the fact that people often love movies that critics don’t is that in order to gain positive reviews, filmmakers have to adhere to certain themes and ideas that only one group of people find interesting. Knowing this, what sets Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival on different footing than everything else in the genre?
Please don’t take that last sentence to be a compliment to the film of any kind, because it isn’t. And I do realize by writing about why you should ignore the critics, I’m contradicting myself, but here goes! Arrival is a film that not only gained a 93% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, but it was also nominated for 27 awards and won 12 awards from various film critic societies and circles. Based on the short story, “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang, Arrival tells the story of a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who get invited by the U.S. military to try to communicate with an alien species, who have dropped pods on all the major continents of the earth and have invited mankind to open a dialogue with them. This is where the film’s plot and themes come into play. Can we work together to figure out what these aliens want, before we become too paranoid and not only try to take them out but end up warring among ourselves in the process?
In typical Hollywood fashion, Russia and China are bad guys, who basically take the world to the brink of destruction before Amy Adams saves the day. If you rewind backwards and fast forward a bit, Louise (Adams) discovers that the aliens are on earth to “offer weapon” or “use weapon,” which is alien speak for “tool” or “gift,” but the movie was in need a plot of twist so conclusions were jumped to, tensions were raised and war was almost an inevitability. The “gift” they were on earth to offer (without giving too much away) was their language, which when written out, looked like a series of circles with lines protruding from them. That’s where Louise (Adams) comes in. She has to race the clock to discover why the aliens are there before bad things happen. And they do happen.
The twist in the middle of the film is probably its biggest flaw, but lets keep this review free of any spoilers and talk about the reasons the critics loved it so much, and you probably won’t. Brian Tallerico from RogerEbert.com said that, “It’s a movie designed to simultaneously challenge viewers, move them and get them talking.” Chris Tilly of IGN said, “The film features shades of Interstellar, Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but never feels derivative. Rather it’s smart, sophisticated sci-fi that asks BIG questions, and does a pretty good job of answering them.” British film critic Robbie Collin called it, “introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined – yet it unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there’s a mid-film revelation,” that when it hits you, makes you feel like “your seat is tipping back.” We must have been watching a different movie. Not only was the movie nothing like Interstellar or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was hardly a sci-fi movie. If the aliens weren’t in it, it could have been rebranded as a DaVinci Code sequel or a John McClain movie with a lot less explosions.
There’s also the fact that the entire thing was basically a political metaphor. The only thing that could have made it more obvious was if the characters all had on shirts that said, “I hate Conservatives.” Fine, that’s all well and good, this is America, we’re all entitled to believe what we will. However, especially in the wake of this year’s election, people don’t want to go to the movie theater to watch something with such heavy political themes. They want to escape it. They want to be taken to another world, live in somebody else’s shoes, fall in love vicariously and go on a grand adventure. If they really want politics, they’d turn on the news or the Internet. It’s a safe guarantee that people don’t walk out of movies like this thinking to themselves, “You know the writer and director were totally right about my political beliefs, I’m going to start voting the other way.” We have enough reasons to hate each other without walking out of a movie theater wanting to punch somebody wearing a Donald Trump hat or Hillary Clinton t-shirt. Make people think, but don’t force political idealism on people who thought they were going to watch an alien flick. And if you absolutely have to make political references, work on subtlety. When you make servicemen who value their second amendment right (and also put their lives on the line for your right to make movies like this) look like unhinged villains, you’re taking things too far. Though the character designed to look like Alex Jones was pretty spot on.
Now for the good things about the film. The list is rather short, but one thing that does stick out is the phenomenal talent that pushed the narrative forward. Amy Adams took a role that might appear very one-dimensional on paper and gave it depth and meaning. The character of Louise was both captivating and tragic. Then there’s Jeremy Renner who played Ian Donnelly, there’s not much that can be done to make a theoretical physicist exciting . . . because theoretical physics is only exciting to the few people on the planet who understand theoretical physics. Though Adams and Renner were amazing in their roles, the real show stealer was Forest Whitaker, who is set to make a boatload of money with the coming release of Star Wars: Rogue One. In Arrival, Whitaker plays a senior U.S. military officer named Weber, who can almost be considered the glue that drove the entire narrative forward. Besides the acting, the marketing for Arrival was very clever. The trailers did a great job of adding mystery and intrigue to the film, and not showing the aliens until they absolutely had to was a great way to keep people interested. Yes, it was a very intense film and you will want to stay from start to finish, but as you leave the theater, that’s when you’ll actually do some thinking, and not in the way the critics would have you believe.
Again, what sets Arrival apart from other sci-fi films in the minds of critics? For one, the political themes. Critics love politics, especially politics that parallel modern society and their own beliefs. Second, critics love a slow narrative and a not-so-well placed score. There are times in Arrival when the music doesn’t match what’s happening on screen. Third, critics love good acting. Okay, we all love good acting, so you can’t blame them there. Fourth and final, critics love films that “make you think” or are presented as overly complicated, but understood only to them. It makes them feel superior and intelligent, though, what exactly you’re thinking about is up for interpretation – not necessarily theirs.
At the end of the film, screenplay writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve took all of the things that were great about films like Inception, Interstellar, The Martian and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and shoved it all into a 116 minute movie that was way overhyped and far more political than any sci-fi movie should be. Yes, some of themes had merit to them, but when you have specific scenes aimed at making certain groups of people with beliefs different than yours look like the scum of the earth, not only are you firing off cheap shots, but you’re also wasting valuable pages and minutes that could have made the movie a whole lot better. Is the movie thought-provoking? It’s debatable. Is the acting great? It absolutely is. Is it memorable? Not really.
“Arrival Movie Review & Film Summary (2016)”. Roger Ebert. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
Chris Tilly (September 26, 2016). “Arrival Review”. IGN. Retrieved November 13, 2016.
“Arrival review: dazzling science-fiction that will leave you speechless”. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved November 11, 2016.