Arrival full movie review - They came in peace - to waste our time
As everyone knows, the arbiters of opinion in the artsy world do not like science fiction, primarily because it contains the word "science," which brings back embarrassing memories of inadequacy in school.
So when I heard that Arrival was being hailed as the science fiction movie that finally won their approval, I was skeptical, and as it turns out, with good cause. 'Arrival' is the kind of movie lauded by critics because it's "different," "intellectual," and "sophisticated," because hey, it doesn't have any explosions or purple pew-pew death rays, right? More suitable adjectives would be pretentious, glacial, monumentally boring, and depressive. To start at a conceptual level, the story makes no sense. Let's consider beings advanced enough to have mastered interstellar travel. Evidently they were here to communicate, so why did they just sit there passively waiting for humans to figure out their language, instead of making some effort on their own? Their conduct is equivalent to PhDs setting up camp on an island populated by a primitive tribe, and then just sitting there expecting the natives to learn English all on their own.
Every kid who paid attention in middle school knows that the fool-proof way to communicate with alien intelligence is mathematics, because it is a universal language. Start with prime numbers, move on to algebra, euclidean geometry, calculus, and take it from there. But this movie says something about prime numbers being "parroted back and forth" without any progress being made. Sorry, that is simply unbelievable. Once you've established common ground for numbers, mathematical proofs, physical laws, etc., progress should be exponential. It's hard to respect a "science fiction" movie that makes a gaffe like this, considering even Independence Day got it right - using arrays of lamps mounted on helicopters to attempt to communicate.
In this movie, it takes several days after first contact, several days of pointing at oneself and saying "human," for someone to get the bright idea of using visual communication. Incredibly, when that works, the linguist is chastised by the colonel, showing that military men are stupid, paranoid control freaks.
The sounds the aliens make are just another example of how no one involved with this movie has even a rudimentary understanding of science. The aliens vocalize with long, mournful, sighing bellows that seem like sounds the less intelligent dinosaurs must have made, that couldn't possibly contain much information (you need relatively high-pitched, rapidly changing sounds to be efficient at communication -- see human languages, dolphin whistles).
When visual communication is finally established, it appears that the aliens don't have any flatscreen technology or even paper and are reduced to writing in mid-air with squirts of ink that constantly change shape. After all, it's not as if their written language was cryptic enough.
Moving on to plot consistency, if the aliens know everything that's going to happen, why did they 1) not stop the rogue soldiers from setting up the explosives, 2) wait until the last moment to push Donnelly and Banks out of harm's way, and 3) not act in time to save the life of one of their own? When the aliens finally acquire a rudimentary understanding of human language, why would they say something as potentially inflammatory as "offer weapon" and "use weapon"? Were they, in their infinite wisdom, unaware that Earth's inhabitants are warlike? What kind of advanced spacefaring, gravity-controlling creatures arrive on a planet wanting to communicate, and then require the natives to use an elevating platform to access their spaceship? Is the advanced technology known as "ramps" and "elevators" unknown to these superior beings? Is it just that they don't want just anyone getting in, and the ability to reach their ship's hatch is a rudimentary IQ test? Later we find that they do have gravity-defying elevator capsules, but they forgot to install any lighting in them. Using those from the start would have prevented the buffoonery with the explosives, but no, the aliens chose to use less security than at your typical airport.
There are repeated messages that guns are bad, with a gratuitous segment showing a gun nut ranting about how the people at the landing site "don't even have any guns." Later on, rogue soldiers are able to set up demolition charges in the alien spaceship, as if security at the first extraterrestrial contact site wouldn't be tighter than a duck's you-know-what, and implying that people who so much as handle guns in the course of duty are infected by a predilection for violence and a lack of critical thinking ability.
The dialog is often incomprehensible. Everyone speaks in mumbles, which I suppose is appropriate, as clarity of speech comes with clarity of thought, and that's definitely not on the menu in this movie. At one point a character says "it EFFECTS how you see everything" - how did this get past everyone involved? The music is alternately annoying and excruciatingly maudlin. One of the tracks apparently goes "No no no no no no..." ad infinitum, which, I suppose, means they can see into the future and accurately predicted my reaction to the movie.
Overall, this is a movie for effete, depressive pseudo-intellectuals. The darkness that pervades every frame, the wailing violins, the glacial pace. The central theme of "we all know what eventually happens (we all die), so why bother doing anything?" The one thing I liked about the film was the theme that the majority of humanity is stupid and violence-prone, but without protagonists who could effectively counterbalance that, it falls flat as a whole. Where are the smart, capable heroes who save the aliens from the stupid humans, the stupid humans from themselves, and win humanity a respectable place in the interstellar order?