Monday, February 06, 2017

Best of 2016, #9: Arrival

Once again, I’ll start with what didn’t work:

The Problem: Most of the conflict in this movie is false conflict. We start with a very familiar sci-fi situation: Aliens have landed and the scientists want to communicate while the military doesn’t trust them. We’ve seen this a million times before, but this time the situation is tilted too far in the scientists’ direction. It’s way to obvious to us, and it should be obvious to them, that these aliens are super nice guys, but we still get scene after scene of the military freaking out needlessly. Meanwhile, we get a very cool story of watching a linguist decode this language, but the film doesn’t trust this story enough to carry the movie (and they may be right about that). (The most obvious example of false conflict is the fact that the military doesn’t warn Adams or Renner that gravity is about to realign itself. Why not give them a heads up on that? Just to give us and them a little false shock.)

The Meddler: The aliens needed to be even more alien, to the extent that they’re accidentally killing people, either by simply crushing them, or by emitting sounds that split eardrums, or by frying them with force fields, etc. This would up the stakes considerably. Now Adams would be putting her life at risk by entering this ship belonging to these aliens that can’t stop killing people, maybe accidentally, maybe not. Now the military would have a good reason to just wipe these people off the map and the scientists would have a much harder job to do convincing the military that no, these deaths were accidental and we just need to learn to communicate. Then the communication breakthrough would be far more consequential.

What I Liked About It: The performances, the tone, the science, and especially the whopper of a twist.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Tease your twist. A great twist can’t just land like a rock on the head of your audience. As with a murder mystery, you need to “play fair”, laying in a series of clues: Not that your audience wants to necessarily guess the twist before the reveal, but they want to feel like they could have and maybe should have. The beauty of this twist is that it’s teased out and revealed so gradually that you’re on the cusp of figuring it out about a half-hour before it finally hits you, which feels so gratifying. As soon as I heard Adams say “Your father’s the scientist”, I began to figure it out somewhere in the back of my brain, but that only meant it hit with more force, not less, when it was finally revealed.


James Kennedy said...

Since very few movies err on the side of giving the aliens the benefit of the doubt, I'm fine with the film's rhetoric being tilted in the scientists' direction. We have ALIENS, we have INDEPENDENCE DAY, we have ATTACK THE BLOCK, they're all great and they all unapologetically lean toward: exterminate them. Relieved to have an alien movie biased the other way. If the aliens had killed or zapped anyone etc. it would have ruined it. It was enough of a chilling alien WTF are-they-friendly-or-aren't-they moment when the aliens said "USE WEAPON," and that would have been ruined if there had been bullshit with force fields

James Kennedy said...

As soon as an alien killed someone, even accidentally, the tone would be destroyed.

DaveH said...

I agree completely about the fake 'military hysteria' thread being almost laughable - but there's enough good elsewhere to redeem the film for me.
The other thin spot in the plot was the speed with which Louise cracks the aliens' 'written language.' From printed human text and few gestures, to the unraveling of the complex ink-blot shapes ... didn't square with the huge complexity in information theory that would have been required. it would have been much better to focus on the audio, tones, sounds, durations ... much more universal for everyone in the film, and for the audience. Music and sound are a more likely universal language-link than scrawled graphics.

Still - the main redeemer is the cool twist, and the rationale that learning their language changes the learner's perception of time.
Put that together with 'uniting the word' - and they were back to OK by the end.