Arrival is terrible. I don’t want any confusion on this point. It’s sitting on a 90+% fresh rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and that is a shocking failure of the film criticism community. If you look through the positive reviews for this film, you’ll find a common theme: it gets lauded for being “cerebral” or “intellect-stroking” or some other nonsense. Which essentially means critics will feel their intellect is validated by praising a movie that is, on its surface, about linguistics. (Noam Chomsky is a linguist, isn’t he? And he’s smart as hell!) In reality, Arrival is exactly as devoid of character, plot, or narrative logic as any summer blockbuster garbage that critics trip over each other to condemn. But it’s slow and boring and scored with sad string music, so critics that don’t deserve their jobs will tell the public it’s “smart sci-fi.”
Arrival tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist of the most cunning variety, and her intergalactic ESL class taught to two giant ballsacks resting on seven-fingered hands who speak in whale farts and write in coffee mug stains. It’s not even as exciting as that makes it sound.
In this story, aliens arrive in 12 ships in random locations around the world and nobody can communicate with them, because this isn’t the Marvel universe and we have to wear our big boy pants when it comes to avoiding nonsense like aliens speaking English. This leaves it to humans to figure out if the aliens represent malevolent, benevolent, or neutral intent. About 20 convo sessions in, you can probably rule out the most exciting option.
Dr. Banks figures centrally in this story because she is the world’s greatest linguist. She proves this with her knowledge that the Sanskrit word for “war” translates literally to “a desire for more cattle,” a factoid known only to the world’s greatest linguist or anyone who browses Reddit. Banks is also the only person on Planet Earth who would think to communicate with aliens using a combination of writing and speaking, instead of just shouting at the damn things or whatever the stupid foreigners in other countries were trying.
That’s an important point, by the way: the Americans come up with every major breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, and the Chinese and Russians are the first to break collaboration with the rest of the world and threaten violence against the visitors. Your brainy, mature science fiction is exactly as dully jingoistic as fucking Independence Day.
But really, what do we know about Dr. Banks, our protagonist? Well, she has a daughter that dies from baldness, which a throwaway line clarifies is not actually cancer, just some other disease that makes you bald. What a waste of hair as a visual storytelling device. You may remember Gravity used the backstory of a dead daughter as a springboard to give a modest character arc to a film based around NASA set pieces. Arrival doesn’t even wring a character arc out of the lazy device, and in a weird way it doesn’t even really factor into the story.
Helping Dr. Banks are Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who is dumb as a fucking brick and not a general like you would think for something like First Contact with an extraterrestrial species, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is a man of some kind. Donnelly is some kind of science person—maybe a physicist—but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t do anything, and even though I have never liked Jeremy Renner as an actor or as the owner of a dumb face, it’s kind of amazing that they would give an Oscar-nominated actor so little to do. He’s really only there to be a love interest for Banks. Which would be totally fine! That’s what Oscar-nominated Amy Adams did in Man of Steel, a movie roughly on par with Arrival in terms of being brainy sci-fi. But, like in Man of Steel, there isn’t even an iota of romantic chemistry between the two leads before their plot-obligated union.
There’s not a single moment Banks and Donnelly share onscreen that could even be mistakenly confused for romantic, even by Freudian nightmare aliens. Like, at least when George Lucas drunkenly stumbles through a romantic pairing like a child making two GI Joe action figures kiss, you can see what he’s going for. Here it’s just down to two heterosexual singles who can feel the runtime coming to a close. Maybe their romance is meant to be a twist? This film is very fond of twists, like many other very bad films.
But Arrival has somehow escaped looking like a bad film. The A-list acting talent no doubt helps, and it’s shot and paced in a manner that seems to say “Shhh! No running in the halls. A Serious Film is taking place.” But that’s really all it is: a posture of importance. The acting talent is wasted on utterly blank, unengaging characters. The art house shots of Banks and her doomed daughter are wasted on the most rote Idyllic Parent and Child scenes imaginable and a plot utterly decoupled from the main narrative. So all that’s left is a vapid alien movie based around grade-school English that tries to pass itself as a cerebral science fiction epic by moving very slowly. And 9 out of 10 film critics can’t tell the difference.