Monday, February 06, 2017
Best of 2016, #9: Arrival
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.