Since “Arrival” opened only last Friday at my local Cineplex, I was rather surprised to see no more than 5 or 6 people in the theater last night for the 10:15 show. Given its 93 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I expected to see hundreds instead. The first thing that entered my mind was that the word-of-mouth on the film was probably not very good.
After settling in with my wife, it was obvious that the common folk were smarter than the critics who fell all over themselves praising the film to the skies. After 20 minutes or so, my wife turned to me and whispered, “Do you like this?” I told her I did even though my main motivation was to stick it out to the bitter end since this was one of those overhyped films I owe it to my readers to avoid paying good money on. I encouraged her to return to our apartment and watch something on the Bravo network that would have been far more intelligent than this metaphysically obscure science fiction yarn.
I was hoping for something approaching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still” but the film had much more in common with Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, a film not at all about space aliens but about space-time continuum anomalies—the sort of thing that Star Trek fans adore. You know, like when Captain Kirk goes into the past to advise his younger self. (Yawn.)
Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguist who has been drafted by the military as part of a mission to communicate with space aliens who have landed in a spaceship that hovers about fifty feet above the ground in Montana, just as eleven others have landed around the world. The space aliens who appear behind what looks like a plate glass window in the spaceship have an uncanny resemblance to those who abducted Homer Simpson but without the eye and the fangs.
Nearly the entire film consists of Banks trying to teach the creatures English while she tries to learn their language in turn, which has vocal and written forms unrelated to each other. The written form does not use fountain pens or IPads. Instead it emanates as smoke rings from their tentacles that finally end up graffiti-like against their side of the plate glass thingy that separates them from the humans. Considering the static nature of these scenes and their lack of conventional dramatic tension, there’s really not much to sink your teeth into. For me, it was a lot less interesting than the documentary “Project Nim” that detailed the attempts to teach a chimpanzee how to use sign language. Plus, chimps are a lot more engaging than CGI-generated space octopuses.
Okay, here’s a spoiler alert. Don’t go any further if you have plans to see this dopey film.
What Banks finally discovers is that the creatures are trying to teach human beings their language that allows you to experience time in a non-linear fashion. In other words, you don’t need a time-machine to go backwards and forwards chronologically—or something like that. By mastering this language, Banks develops the ability to experience the birth and death of her daughter who we first meet in the beginning of the film in what seems to be a flashback. Instead it is a flashforward. They were anxious to teach humans their language because their help would be needed 3,000 years in the future. Don’t ask me why. No reason was given.
By contrast, we care deeply about ET who we hope will be able to return home. We also care deeply about Klaatu, who comes to earth to prevent nuclear catastrophe. But how can you care about 7-legged creatures who speak through smoke rings blown from their tentacles like ink from an octopus (or is that squids–who cares)? That is, unless we had a better idea of what fate awaited them 3,000 years hence. Was their planet doomed like Superman’s Krypton? Of course, none of this was possible to dramatize when the space alien was so remote from us biologically. They might have been even more workable as “characters” if they looked and acted like the ethereal and strangely beautiful creatures in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
At least Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” made a lame attempt to ground its time travel in Einsteinian physics. “Arrival” is simply a mish-mosh that puts science to the side in the fashion of some of the more bonkers Star Trek episodes that at least had the merit of being entertaining.
Here, btw, was my satiric take on “Interstellar”. If I find the time, I might do a trailer for “Arrival”.