Flo Lieb’s review published on Letterboxd:
One word you’ll encounter in a lot – if not most – reviews of this movie is: intelligent. I’ve read a bunch of reviews but none explicitly specified what makes Arrival (so) intelligent. It’s a film about aliens coming to Earth and humans not starting to shoot ‘em up but trying to communicate with them. In said subgenre of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Independence Day this seems a rare occasion (albeit Contact follows a similar approach with a female lead eager to communicate) and therefore Arrival is intelligent for bucking the trend I must presume. Since the postulated theory or twist this film dives into in the end is not science fact but rather science fiction it also does not qualify as being the intelligent propeller. Or maybe proposing a weird and not accurate theoretical concept is intelligent? But that would make Back to the Future intelligent too. No matter which way I approach this I can’t find access to the “Arrival is intelligent” claim.
Despite this movie being intelligent or not – as you might’ve guessed I argue that it isn’t since it merely follows genre tropes and blockbuster clichés – the story never managed to captivate me. Actually I was bored with the film most of its 2 hours running time. The linguistic studies of the alien language are neat in a way, sure. But the film never fully dives into the specifics of the linguistic approach besides Amy Adams’ character just giving Forest Whitaker’s Army general some superficial basics. The film has to be “too Hollywood” to go full linguistics with Whitaker’s soldier first demanding from Adams’ character to translate Alien language solely based on a few seconds of audiotape (really?) to later instructing her to ask immediate questions about the purpose of their arrival (without having a full grasp on the language yet) and finally some Chinese General who wants to blow up the aliens’ ship and the whole world looking to China to follow suit. For a film which is intelligent the characters react solely like the genre formula dictates them to. Dim soldiers demanding to know the aliens’ agenda, having one figure already on the trigger, and science geeks trying to prevent this.
All of these genre tropes exists primarily to give the plot some kind of urgency. The lead protagonist has to figure out the aliens’ agenda a) because her government puts pressure on her and b) China is close to blow their ship up and what China does everyone will do. It will never cease to amaze me how movie characters seem so eager to blow up aliens who clearly have a superior technology and in this case it isn’t even warranted since there is not a single sign of intended harm portrayed. What we see here is what we see in every alien “invasion” film with clear roles for the human characters and varying malice from the extraterrestrials. There are other dramatic curveballs in very small subplots that are somewhat a result of a) and will somehow further b) while another subplot focuses on a personal trauma of Adams’ linguistic professor with a daughter lost to an illness. This is presented in random visual snippets throughout the movie without those snippets having any specific meaning to the story situation their layered in or their ultimate outcome. To go into all of this and how it plays into the twist of Arrival would be spoiler. Yet with the majority of people thinking this is at least part of what makes the movie so intelligent – or essentially intelligent at all – I can’t agree.
The twist of Arrival itself is based on an exaggerated interpretation of a mere hypothesis and presented in a way that contradicts itself partly (although this is may be due to the fact that the movie isn’t really giving the audience a detailed view of the human-alien-interactions to explain it fully). Most of all though the twist exists primarily to be just that: a twist. Right of the Shyamalan and Nolan textbook Villeneuve builds up the emotional core of the twist throughout his film but since the story doesn’t really need the twist cutting from the main story to the twist-building subplot and back is very inorganic (at least it was for me). There’s no real point arguing that the twist (or the reasoning behind it) hardly makes sense since it is solely there for gasp value, so I’ll leave it be. The more problematic issue for me is that the film doesn’t really need the twist to work the way it does. Yet one might argue that without it the plot would be even less interesting than it is by itself.
As much as the premise of Arrival is intriguing – aliens arrive and seek first contact with humans who have to figure out a way to communicate with each other – the makers of the movie seem to feel (or realize) it hardly sustains a movie that is supposed to make money at the box office. So obviously there has to be some reason explained for the aliens to come to Earth (other than a simple “we found out about you and wanted to say ‘hi’”), there has to be some dramatic propeller to give the interaction some urgency and importance (e.g. a timeframe with mortal consequences) and there has to be present some kind of awe at the end if the resolution of the alien visitation is not sufficient (enough). But all of this is so very textbook it’s difficult if not impossible for me to be impressed by Arrival.