There’s a great irony in Arrival that screenwriter Eric Heisserer left on the table. The film is ostensibly a story about communication and trust, and—spoiler—at its conclusion the protagonist declines to trust her lover and communicate with him that any child they have together will die before high school.
This could make for a great dark irony that explores why cowardice and selfishness can reduce us, in spite of our intelligence or convictions, to become nothing more than vermin scuttering around in the dark cannibalizing each other. But nothing about the script or the direction suggest that anyone involved is even aware this conflict of message exists. Banks’ decision to “keep” a doomed child is treated as something to be celebrated, outright ignoring the horrendous immorality of hiding the child’s inevitable death from her prospective father. Most writing about the film celebrates it as an especially timely message of hope, comforting Americans who don’t know what to expect from the idiot they elected to lead them. And that is fucking insane, and could explain why we’re stupid enough to have elected a schmuck like Trump to the presidency in the first place.
Let’s break this down: imagine you know for a certainty that you carry the gene for Huntington’s Disease. Medical fuckups or second-opinions notwithstanding, that means any potential child you have with a non-Huntington person would have a 50% chance of developing the disease. Now, if you’re in a position to have a child with someone, you absolutely have to tell them about this. You can’t just nod your head at the idea and keep them in the dark because in your heart, you’ve already accepted all the rosy and frightening possibilities of this crazy rollercoaster we call Life. That doesn’t make you an enlightened symbol of hope, it makes you a solipsistic piece of shit.
In Dr. Banks’ case, she has a 100% certainty her child will die of an incurable disease if she has one with Donnelly—she can see the damned future! And this baby’s conception won’t be some unforeseen twist of Greek irony. Donnelly just asks her point-blank, “Ya wanna make a baby?” And that’s it. Banks looks at the camera and winks and a giant cartoon circle closes around them.
For some reason, Banks eventually tells Donnelly about the death clock hovering over their daughter’s head when the girl is about 8 years old, utterly destroying his relationship with her and leaving her confused and afraid about what caused the love to drain out of her father. It’s equal parts confusing and disgusting, because why tell him at all if not at the proper time? The only real conclusion is that Banks didn’t tell him prior to conception because she didn’t trust he would go through with it, even though this is the one thing in her life she can absolutely trust him to follow through on: if Donnelly balked, the visions of a future child wouldn’t have existed in the first place. You already proved it’s a closed-time loop universe, dipshit.
Now, movies can have dipshit characters. That’s super interesting. This could be a great opportunity to actually delve into the selfish reasons that cause rifts in communication, and why disparate cultures find it so hard to avoid violent conflict. And that would elevate Arrival into the sort of movie that gets the kind of praise directed towards, say, Arrival.
But Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve aren’t really interested in that sort of thing. In their story, cultures clash in violent conflict because sometimes there isn’t a linguist around to make sure people don’t get accidentally alerted by the improper use of a dipthong. This is world history written by an only child who can’t imagine other people would disagree with him even if they really understood his perfect logic. It’s the liberal pipedream that all conflict is just misunderstanding, rather than a willful dismissal of others’ right to live based on other priorities.
And maybe that’s why people love Arrival. Because it’s well-disguised escapist fantasy that flatters viewers’ intellectual ego while soothing the sting of the utter failure of the Western liberal worldview to combat real-world problems. It’s the opposite effect of The Wolf of Wall Street, a challenging film that stiffens your spine as you watch its characters lie, cheat, steal, and abuse their way to a greater realization of the American Dream than most of its viewers will ever achieve, and get away with it absolutely scot-free.
Arrival is, by contrast, an opiate—demanding nothing of its viewer. It pats your bottom and whispers the very thing you want to hear as the bullies of the world take over: “Oh honey, they just don’t understand. If only they were as smart as you they would see it your way.” And that makes it more sophomoric, and much uglier, than the juvenile sci-fi action of films like Star Wars that wear their escapism proudly on their sleeve. Films ostensibly for children that, at the very least, call on their viewers to match the courage of their heroes, sticking by their convictions in the darkest times. Arrival‘s hero abandons her commitment to open communication the first time it would be personally convenient to do so and, remarkably, the film and half of America cheers her on.