Review: Arrival (★★★½)


Arrival is the newest entry to the genre I have come to affectionally call Science Fact. These movies, which include The Martian and Interstellar, attempt to ground themselves so much in the accurate science available today whilst moving into the realms of fiction when confronting something we currently cannot do or understand. This time we tackle the issue of the first contact with an alien race and how man would attempt to communicate with these creatures. The premise is quite simple but that doesn’t stop the movie’s logic breaking down when you put some thought into it.

"Story of Your Life" Day 37
Photo: Jan Thijs 2015

This review will contain spoilers as there is really no other way to communicate my issues with it without revealing the twist of the movie.

Upon the arrival of 12 alien pods, a team of scientists explore the ships to find two alien beings who communicate via a circular language. They come to send a message to the humans of an impending threat to the alien’s race which they need Earth’s help with. This leads to the scientists learning to understand their circular non-linear language and unlocking its potential, time travel.

With movies such as these, the ones I described as Science Fact, the foundations of the plot, and especially the science concepts, are grounded so much in reality that when you introduce a high science fiction concept it tends to break the movie down. This is a classic case. Once Louise (Amy Adams) learns to fully speak the alien language she is able to see time as non-linear, much like they do.

The language deciphering within the movie is fascinating and I never expected the worlds of science and language to mix so satisfyingly. Watching the painstaking process of building up key vocabulary to eventually get to the question, ‘What is your purpose on Earth?’ is a deeply rewarding experience.


The reason it falls apart for me is that this idea seems so far away from human comprehension that it doesn’t seem at all viable that language can unlock a hidden power within the human mind. For example, if we could communicate with animals, no matter how hard we tried we wouldn’t be able to unlock the ability for most animals to gain conciseness. The concept of conciseness is far too much of a complex idea for an animal’s brain to comprehend. I believe seeing time as we see the spacial dimensions isn’t sitting in the back of our minds to be unlocked. No matter how the aliens communicate this idea, it would be beyond our comprehension to gain this ability. Maybe over millennia of years of evolution, we could gain the ability to start viewing the world this way, but Arrivals attempt to add this fiction to reality fails miserably.

Although it is only a movie, I still cannot get over Science Fact’s desire to be as realistic as possible yet attempt to fuse fiction into the story without adequately bridging the logic gap. The same thing happened in Interstellar. We don’t know what happens if someone falls into a black hole, therefore I can completely get behind any high concept science fiction that Nolan presents. Yet, we do know that nothing can escape from a black hole, so once the protagonist gets out of the black hole, the movie’s science, the thing it is trying so hard to preserve, falls apart.


Aside from this, Arrival is a much more grounded and true to life depiction of how an alien encounter would occur compared to movies such as Independence Day. I admire the movie for attempting the tackle these issues but the plot becomes so ‘out there’ that it’s difficult to not get caught up on its confusing logic. I have no problem with movies not patronising the audience but don’t make a ‘thinky’ film if, as soon as you begin thinking, it all breaks down.


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