The Curmudgeon


Monday, April 03, 2017


Denis Villeneuve 2016

Twelve alien vessels appear above twelve locations scattered across the world, plunging the human race into crisis and causing linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to be helicoptered off to Montana for interpretation purposes. Banks receives little characterisation in the brief run-up, aside from the facts that she is divorced and a bereaved breeder. Even the protagonist of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who has a mental age of approximately eighteen months, received far less casual treatment; but in Arrival, as it turns out, Banks' marital and reproductive status is all that really matters.

The concept behind Arrival is the theory that language determines consciousness and that, by extension, new linguistic discoveries could mean new discoveries about the potential of the human mind. This intriguing idea served as a McGuffin for Ian Watson's thin alien-contact novel The Embedding, received a bit more attention in Samuel Delany's more substantial Babel-17, and has the makings of a very good science fiction film. Unfortunately Arrival is not that film, because Arrival has little interest in science and is thoroughly cack-handed as fiction.

Several times, Banks has occasion to explain the problems of using natural language to communicate with alien species, and the script allows her to discourse with wit and concision. However, the intelligence of her exposition is somewhat compromised by the way in which all the complexities Banks points out are forgotten the moment she stops speaking. As she observes, the question What is your purpose in visiting Earth? would lead to misunderstanding, or else nowhere at all, unless both earthling and alien understood each other's assumptions about who "you" might be and what a question is. Banks nevertheless establishes contact by holding up some writing in Magic Marker, although the film never establishes quite how the aliens worked out what was signal and what was noise; let alone how they then determined that "HUMAN" doesn't mean Greetings, or Guard your midriff, or Take me to your leader, or Immigrants go home. Possibly it was for much the same reason that the Montana site, presumably one of the dozen most locked-down locations on the entire planet, is nonetheless susceptible to explosive sabotage by a few rogue squaddies under the influence of xenophobic TV broadcasters.

In fact, as far as the script is concerned Banks' scientific expertise is barely relevant, since whenever a problem arises it can invariably be solved by a flashback about her late offspring. I'm not sure how many of the feminist critics who cried sexism over Elle and Nocturnal Animals have picked up on the fact that Arrival allows Banks to be the heroine not by virtue of her intellectual accomplishments, but purely and solely because she is, or was, a mom. Given, in addition, the unearned, implausible and meretricious family-values twist at the end, Banks must be one of the more reactionary female characterisations since the days when all the aliens spoke American English.

Slickly shot and well acted, Arrival shares with most big-budget science fiction films the crippling handicap of a puerile screenplay. It is inferior to Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it is inferior to The Day the Earth Stood Still. It is inferior to The Andromeda Strain, to Phase IV, to The Abyss, to District 9, to Monsters and to This Island Earth. I haven't seen Contact or read Carl Sagan's novel, but I would be prepared to lay odds that Arrival is inferior to those, too. It is also, by varying but significant orders of magnitude, inferior to Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners and Sicario, its predecessors in Denis Villeneuve's filmography; which makes it not only another lazy lump of pretentious Hollywood pabulum, but also a true disappointment.


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