Don’t expect much. Expect very little, in fact. Do, however, expect computer generated imagery; wooden characters; emotional set-ups without the resolution expected from well conceived plots; a muddled, irresolute ending; and the occasional political jab. The Elegant Miss Pritchard is tempted to use a non-linear critique in this non-linear film to give you a taste of the over-arching plot mechanism; but, that would muddy the waters too much and her reputation for impeccable English would be sullied beyond redemption: Arrival (2016; PG-13; Denis Villeneuve, director). For a plot summary…click here. (Please note this review contains spoilers.)
Let us get down to brass tacks. Arrival is a long, politically correct and tendentious homage to the cinematic art of self-indulgence. From the get-go, viewers should be alert to gratuitous emotional manipulation with an ill child whom we never actually get to know. In essence, the child is without personality and works as a foil for her mother’s perfunctory psycho-drama. When nothing else comes to a screenwriter’s mind (screenwriter, Eric Heisserer – A Nightmare on Elm Street), put a kid – any kid – in mortal danger, assume emotional devastation in the parents, and work from there. Of course, the child’s illness is terminal and presented as something that can’t be pinned on anything or anybody except an unfeeling and indifferent universe. Yet can it? Not to worry, in the topsy-turvy world created by Arrival, not even premature death registers emotional depth. Can’t achieve a degree of gravitas with the death of a child? Very well then…put the entire planet in danger too! Maybe that will elevate the needle on the cinematic drama meter. Alas, no. The World-in-peril doesn’t register much either.
Arrival seems to have been cobbled together from other films; a cinematic element from this movie here and a dramatic moment from another there. Unfortunately, the whole does not work from the parts. Besides the previously mentioned non-linear format, the other mechanism in use is what Miss Pritchard calls the “many plot elements in the air all at once waiting for the final few minutes for resolution” style of story-telling. Other films employing this picture-puzzle framing include Adaptation (2002) and Barton Fink (1991). Both of these films deal with the creative process and what artists go through psychologically and emotionally to give birth, as it were, to their works of art. Both films involve a protagonist with writer’s block struggling with their creative forces manifesting in odd and unexpected ways. Each protagonist confronts whatever bedevils their emotive juices and arrives at dramatic and psychological fulfillment. While thematically similar, the story-telling is so varied each to the other, the films stand on their own. In other words, the roads taken are unique as to make an interesting journey even though the final destination is similar. Not so with Arrival. Elements pillaged from other films would be the…
– Communal Kumbaya spirituality from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
– World governments working together to a common purpose in Pacific Rim (2013).
– Audience alerted to a different physics by characters walking in an altered gravity from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
– World on the brink of destruction in War of the Worlds (1953).
– First encounter in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
– Non-linear time line in Memento (2000).
(By the way, Miss Pritchard recommends all of these.)
While Adaptation and Barton Fink deal with the creative process, Arrival deals in the procreative. To be sure. Arrival is ultimately about the emotional entanglement involved with having children. Or, rather, it’s supposed to be about the emotional entanglement associated with having children. The treatment in Arrival is so superficial and cursory it’s hard to generate any empathy for Louise (Amy Adams) or her decision to have a child knowing full well, tragedy lies ahead. And, while we’re bending time and gravity, forget the feelings of the father. Forget the feelings of the child too. The father’s and the child’s feelings don’t register either with Louise or apparently the screenwriter. Nor is it supposed to register since they’re scarcely touched on. This might be a politically correct element in the oh-so au courant cultural zeitgeist of women going it alone with child bearing and rearing. We say might because Miss Pritchard is reluctant to give the makers of Arrival credit for even that much self-awareness.
Forget the space aliens. Forget seeing all of time laid out in front of you. Forget the non-linear plot line. The movie isn’t science fiction. It’s a half baked morality play superimposed on a sciency backdrop. The bending of time is invoked as an emotional get-out-of-jail-free card for the self-involved mother and protagonist Louise. Her side-kick, Ian (Jeremy Renner), is a theoretical physicist who does no theorizing and has the thematic utility of a door-stop. Also, Louise the language expert takes a very long time to arrive at even a basic form of communication with the alien visitors. Our linguist consultants and common experience tell us a basic understanding between two people with no common language would take a matter of minutes rather than hours or days as is presented in Arrival. Also, what the aliens use as a written language is akin to the use of Chinese symbols (i.e. they are ideograms) rather than employing an alphabet. Nothing new or startling there. The Elegant Miss Prtichard is quite certain that if she learned to read Chinese characters she would still lack the ability to see into the future.
Political jabs come in the form of a not so well camouflaged Rush Limbaugh look- and sound-alike providing the impetus for a home-spun terror attack on the aliens nicknamed Abbott and Costello. In the spirit of full disclosure, Miss Pritchard abhors current political references in works of fiction. It functions like a dead-man’s switch in her mind. If one facet of the movie is viewed through a political prism, then the entire movie should be viewed through the same prism. Finally, one can also assume the aliens would have equally trite pet-names for their human antagonists. Why wouldn’t they? As representatives of humanity, Louise and Ian leave a great deal to be desired.
The Elegant Miss Pritchard gives one positive nod to Forrest Whittaker as Colonel Weber for bringing an element of dignity to an otherwise limp and lifeless moral tale. As far as rating systems are concerned, we do not use them. Feel free to employ your own scale utilizing fruits, vegetables, stars, points of light, or thumbs. Arrival deserves none.