Why ‘Arrival’ Falls Short of Sci-Fi Greatness

You remember the moment. The aliens finally touch down on earth. And, after a series of boops, beeps and funny hand gestures, the two species connect.

“Arrival” wonders what would happen if an alien species approached earth but the language barrier proved far more complex. Even dangerous.

It’s Hollywood’s latest cerebral sci-fi entry, and in many ways it’s a worthy follow up to both “The Martian” and “Gravity.”

So why do we sorely miss the kind of wanton destruction found in films like “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Independence Day?”

Arrival Official Trailer 1 (2016) - Amy Adams Movie

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist hired by the U.S. government after a series of alien spaceships drop from the skies.

Those vessels haven’t landed, technically. All 12 are hovering over the earth in different countries, silently waiting, or maybe watching, for humanity’s next move.

Do they come in peace? That’s what Louise must find out. Teamed with a scientist (Jeremy Renner), Louise is able to contact the alien species directly. Understanding their language won’t be easy. And time is running out.

Other nations aren’t as patient as the U.S. What if one decides it can no longer afford to wait … and lets loose its military might?

FAST FACT: Steven Spielberg thought Amy Adams’ performance in his 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can” would make her a star. That came later, with her stunning turn in “Junebug.”

Louise isn’t your typical hero. When the aliens first appear she looks bemused, at most. She recently suffered the loss of her child, and that mourning blankets her every waking step.

Her working bond with Renner’s character also surprises us. They connect in a quiet way, like two misfits leaning on each other for comfort.

Or is it more than that?

Arrival: Amy Adams Behind the Scenes Movie Interview | ScreenSlam

Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) delivers everything with restraint, down to the spare visual palette. The spaceships are cold and gray. The alien species are intriguing in their liquidy forms, but it’s hardly top-tier effects. There’s no specific action to be found, or character histrionics meant to artificially goose the tension.

It’s refreshing for filmmakers to trust audiences so completely. This isn’t television, mind you. It’s 21st century movie making, where studios demand demographic needs be met … or else.

Get me a cute kid! Or a dog! I don’t care… and where’s that product placement?

And yet the story is, sad to say, an occasional slog. Watching Louise reach out to the aliens is fascinating at first. Those sequences repeat themselves, though, and we’re left hungering for more. Even the language exchange isn’t as intellectually knotty as we might hope.

We stare at inky circles and other blotches the creatures create in an effort to reach out, but our curiosity begins to wane.

That’s a fancy way of saying “Arrival” can be downright dull.

RELATED: Great Sci-Fi – More Than Meets the Eye

The third act elevates the material in a way most science fiction films would love to match. Nothing will be spoiled here, but the reasons for the aliens’ appearance and how it ties into Louise’s story is both bold and original.

The best sci-fi focuses on creepy crawlies while revealing something about the human condition. Here, it’s our inability to communicate despite our modern technology. The world is literally at stake, and yet major nations act like sullen teens hunkering in their bedrooms, the doors locked shut.

At a time when random people slug it out on Twitter over perceived slights, that’s painfully relevant.

HiT or Miss: “Arrival” will be cheered by those hungry for sophisticated science fiction. Even they might stifle a yawn or three along the way, though.


  1. I enjoyed the movie a lot…but frankly, I really felt like something was missing. And the tragedy is: Denis and company didn’t WANT it to be missing.

    Namely…it just didn’t connect with me, emotionally, as well as I knew it should have. All the ingredients were there: the angelic Amy Adams bringing all her subtle emotional power to bear, and of course the “mother-daughter” subplot we keep cutting back to, concluding with a major challenge: without spoiling, the twist brings with it the question “If you know a decision you make will at first bring GREAT joy, and then great pain…do you take that path?”

    And yet…I felt as though I SHOULD be crying, and yet I wasn’t.

    By the way…there’s a sad political cheap shot in the movie. No one and nothing’s singled out by name, per se, and it’s quick…but there’s a fictionalized strawman talk show host for a moment or two, who’s clearly supposed to represent Rush–even though Rush would NEVER promote the foolishness this guy does, with the aliens.

    Especially sad, because Amy Adams, to her considerable credit, is that rare gem among actresses of today who will NEVER, EVER talk about her politics…even when interviewers try to get her into it. She’s said that she tries her hardest to see both sides–and doesn’t like how, this election, “the candidates” have attacked “each other”. And she grew up in Colorado, back when it was Conservative–and she’s noted to Craig Ferguson that she still has “traditional” values, particularly regarding the value of femininity and masculinity.

    And of course, she’s a patriot…as we all know who remember her giving her first-class seat to the soldier.

  2. I for one am looking forward this (and loathed both Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles). Ted Chiang’s short story was great and I’m very stoked to see how this develops; the reviews so far make it sound like a cross between Contact and It Came From Outer Space and I’ll be happy if it’s at least as good as either film. Also, check out the classic short stories “First Contact” by Murray Leinster and “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper.

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