Arrival raises many good questions. Not necessarily questions about how language works or what to do in the event of an alien invasion, but questions about the structure of narrative construction and what makes for a compelling story.
Arrival‘s surface structure is humanity’s encounter with intergalactic beings and its deep structure is a woman coming to terms with her fate. There are also ideas presented of how we would go about communicating with aliens, humans’ unwillingness to cooperate with each other, and the mysterious nature of Time. Any of the above –explored in-depth and with enough panache– can make for good cinema. In Arrival however, these elements were not exploited in any sort of arresting way. Instead, they function here merely as pieces to a puzzle we are asked to solve.
To enlist the audience as puzzle-solvers, I’m guessing the filmmakers hoped we would exhibit the same fear, curiosity, and frustration that protagonist Louise (Amy Adams) felt when she was busy deciphering alien syntax. But instead of eliciting such complex emotions –all I felt was boredom. The way I see it, the filmmakers either could have either gone full geek and used a bunch of extra scenes to explain in detail how one would actually go about understanding an alien language or just entirely skip the process altogether to push forward the plot. Instead, they chose to compromise and we are subjected to watch Amy Adams go through the motions of learning an alien language without learning anything ourselves. (I have to applaud the choice of casting Jeremy Renner as Louise’s teaching assistant for his sheer presence brought much fresh air to an otherwise stuffy set.)
I found it hard to care deeply about any of the characters and I suspect this has to do with the puzzle-like construction of the plot. The thing about puzzle pieces is their individual significance derive entirely from their relations to each other. The upshot is you end up only caring about how the pieces fit together and not the pieces themselves. The thing that disappoints me most is that I wanted to like the characters and care for their outcome; I wanted to learn more about language and the nature of communication. However, the filmmakers overly concern with withholding key pieces (to keep the puzzle intact) superseded all other artistic considerations. The story thus becomes less about the characters (nor the ideas) and more about the filmmaker’s conceit.