The troubling depiction of Russia and China as wildcards that’ll lead the world to ruin through competition while the US responds to threats with patience and empathy is precisely the kind of paranoid xenophobic awfulness that Arrival preaches against and has basically made 2016 such a terrifying year, which in turn justifies to audiences Arrival‘s self-righteous utopianism. This is more of a contradiction than a palindrome. What scares even more is the part where Forest Whitaker says “remember, the Aboriginal Australians were almost wiped out by a superior race.” Taken at face value Arrival doesn’t motivate or confront anything- it assumes a Western-centric perspective in its audience, pats them on the back, and promises that those crazy Chinese and ‘inferior races’ will someday catch up to its universalist vision (‘universal’, so long as ‘we’ are at the centre of it). If it’s self-critical then the film equates globalisation with colonialism, and statements like Whitaker’s break down the shiny veneer of neoliberalism, exposing the same Darwinist vision as its Enlightenment forebears. What initially seems like propaganda satirises 2016’s rise of nationalism, and problematises the alternative groups (either as closeted imperialists or comfortably out-of-touch). Grim.
Minus Villeneuve’s depressing satire Arrival is a film marked by the director’s inability to decide on a tone, and so fluctuating between clinically detached stylisations and sentimental wonder. Its visuals cut between either longshots or extreme close-ups, the former see the cameras move gently (they never stop) towards framing repetitive Kubrickian symmetrical/centred interiors, and the latter are short-sighted, their shallow depth of field shortcutting intimacy with the camera breathing in and out of focus. This is a rather tired move 5 years after The Tree of Life, and 3 since Man of Steel which imitated Malick’s technique in much the same way that Arrival does, and which similarly sought to balance awe and emotion with fetishistically polished visuals. Arrival has moments of abstract transcendence whenever it allows itself to study the cold textures of spacecrafts or heptapods and Jóhann Jóhannsson replaces manipulative strings with wall-shaking electroacoustic bass tones, but otherwise the film is all said strings and aforementioned visual tropes. Cinematographer Bradford Young knows exactly what will make a good computer wallpaper, often to the detriment of a film- A Most Violent Year was a notable victim of this, and it makes complete sense that he has been hired to shoot a new Star Wars Anthology film given his proclivity for the trendy and vacuous.
As in Interstellar, love and humanity are sort of the epiphanies at the centre of this middlebrow sci-fi, and like Nolan, Villeneuve struggles to find a pulse in his film to give this any sense of consequence. A lot of this relies on the other epiphany- non-linear time, which is introduced by an advanced alien species (as in Slaughterhouse-Five), who are as happy to share their hopeful fatalism as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians. References to palindromes and non-linear time are numerous and emphasised, so it is a shame that Arrival is so conservatively linear. True, Adams suddenly ‘remembers’ things, but these are linear scenes inserted in a linear story. Time is only really interrupted during montages, but these are used to narrative rather than poetic effect, to move things along quicker on their linear path. The film begins and ends with narration and the same musical theme (Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight which is now as distractingly overused as Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna), but montages, narrations, musical motifs, and flashbacks are hardly reserved for films with Arrival‘s aspirations. Its sentiment is made weird by its arm’s-length style, and its style is only rarely allowed to own what it is (alien, detached, curious) before linear narrative impulse and cheap sentiments render it pretty but functional instead.