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Arrival Review, Part 1

Nobody behaves like they should for the first ten minutes. They act, dare I say, alien.

Arrival is an interesting movie. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and well-written. The trouble is the script makes some strange choices in the beginning and I just wasn’t persuaded by the movie’s twist at the end.

The story starts out with a montage where Louise is raising her daughter, but the child tragically dies of some unknown illness, presumably cancer. The viewer is led to conclude that this is a flashback, but if one listens to the monologue Louise delivers, she says plainly that she’s explaining when the child’s story begins, if there are beginning at all, which is something she no longer believes. This basically means that the entire movie is a flashback, but the viewer is not supposed to notice this during the first viewing.

Right away, this presents a problem because Louise is shown to be depressed from the start; however, we’re never told why. This is done because the audience is meant to think her depression is caused by the loss of her daughter, but this isn’t the case, so when watching the film a second time, her character seems unlikable. It’s not really a plot hole, but I think the movie would’ve profited by making a change to her personality at the beginning so the writers could show the shift in her character by the end. They’ve already told the audience this entire movie is a flashback, so why not commit to that narrative and show her as a little more optimistic during the opening scenes?

Starting From a Sense of Loss

The movie leans into this sense of depression. The shots all have a dark tone to them, everything is grey and bland, and it remains that way throughout the film. Again, I think this was done to throw the audience off, but the problem is the protagonist experiences no real change. This lack of progress and the nature of the shots makes the movie drag at times. Everything remains stagnant.

After the montage, Louise drags herself to a nearly empty classroom so she can begin lecturing to a handful of students who look like they should be on the set of The Walking Dead. Narratively speaking, this makes no sense because a kid asks Louise to turn on the television. She does so, and the news reports that extraterrestrial ships have landed all over the planet. Now, this student has just seen an alien invasion, and she doesn’t so much as gasp. It’s like the class has just finished their ACTs, not learned about the potential end of the world. This is the most melancholy alien invasion I’ve ever seen! Even when Louise is leaving the school, two cars wreck in front of her and she barely reacts. I say this movie is well-acted because the actors were clearly directed to behave this way, and they commit to their roles, but it’s a very strange portrayal.

The next odd scene is when Colonel Weber comes to visit Louise. It turns out the ships haven’t done anything hostile, and instead, are allowing scientists to board their vessels so they can attempt to communicate with them. He wants her to try and translate their language because that is her expertise. He plays a tape recording of the creatures, and Louise states the obvious, that she can’t interpret what they’re saying without seeing the creatures as they talk which would require her to board their vessel. For some odd reason, Weber refuses to do this and storms out of the office. Before leaving, he admits that he’s going to see a professor at Berkley next. She tells him to ask the professor how to interpret the word war in a particular language. Then the Colonel leaves. That evening, a helicopter lands in Louise’s yard, and Weber picks her up to take her to the landing site. Apparently, the professor at Berkley had one answer and Louise had another. She was right, but I’m not sure how, or why Weber believed her over the professor at Berkley. I honestly don’t know why this scene even existed. He should’ve just picked her up and saved some screen time.

Trying to Communicate

Nobody starts acting like there are aliens on the planet until they get to the military base. As I said, the only thing I can figure out is that the writers were trying to establish this dark mood right at the outset, but they traded narrative consistency in favor of tone, and it was jarring.

Once they get to the ship, things begin to make more sense. Louise meets a physicist named Ian, and together, they are taken to the alien craft. The first time they visit the extraterrestrials, it’s all Louise and Ian can do to simply stand there and look at the colossal creatures.

They don’t even attempt to translate what the aliens are saying. This is understandable as the creatures are quite intimidating, but after this first encounter, they get started. Right away, Louise comes up with the idea of writing out words for the aliens since there’s a possibility that they have a written language of their own. This works. She writes the word “human,” and the creatures respond by writing their own symbol on the glass wall dividing the two species. Louise and the aliens begin exchanging symbols, but Weber quickly grows impatient. The military isn’t interested in teaching the aliens anything because any information given to them could be used against humanity. But here is where Louise shows her expertise, and the writers do a good job explaining the problem. The humans do not know what kinds of concepts the aliens actually understand. The creatures might be so driven by instinct that they can’t even grasp the concept of why. In order for the aliens to tell the humans their purpose on earth, they must first understand enough of the language to be able to identify basic concepts like the singular you versus the plural you. Louise’s explanation pacifies Weber, and she is able to continue her work.

The movie gets better once Louise reaches the base, but I found the beginning to be unbelievable. The characters just seem odd. Nobody behaves like they should for the first ten minutes. They act, dare I say, alien. After that, the film is solid when it sticks to its core premise, that is how to translate a language from another planet, but every time it deviates from this idea the script derails, and we’ll talk more about that in the next review.              

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Arrival Review, Part 1