The Oscars have been and gone, and – despite the ardent support of a vocal group of critics and fans – Arrival failed to snag the Best Picture gong (which ultimately went to La La Land…I mean, Moonlight). While this will no doubt disappoint the many fans of Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi thriller (it has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting near-universal acclaim), there’s also a less vocal group of naysayers – myself included – who question whether Arrival really deserves the heaped praise it has received.
Do a quick google search and you’ll find more than a few cinephiles asking whether Arrival is just a little overrated. Which begs the question: is Arrival really a masterpiece, or simply a good film over-hyped into a great one.
Caveat: yes, there’s plenty to love about Arrival
First things first: I’m not saying Arrival is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.
On the contrary, it’s a decent flick. The premise – linguistics expert Louise Banks is brought in to assist in communications with a newly arrived alien race to determine whether our visitors are friend or foe – is a novel one, and the cast, including Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, are strong across the board (particularly Adams).
Arrival is also a refreshingly cerebral take on the sci-fi genre. Its intelligent script tells a story that is (for all its fantastical elements) grounded in real human emotion, and has something hopeful to say about us as a species. What’s more, it also uses Max Richter’s haunting instrumental piece “On The Nature of Daylight” to devastating effect (although in fairness, that particular piece of music could probably be used to accompany an insurance advert and still manage to elicit tears).
So yes, there’s a lot to love about Arrival – why then did it leave me (and others) cold?
A victim of awards season hoopla
The real issue with Arrival (like fellow critical darling La La Land) isn’t that it’s a not a good film. No, the problem is that it’s a solid outing that has – with every five star review and Best Picture nomination – been held up as one of the best examples of filmmaking in 2016, if not all time. And yet, if you like past the film’s many positive qualities, at least two significant flaws begin to materialise.
First, there’s the film’s twist-laden plot. Although several of these reveals are fairly easy to anticipate if you’re familiar with the tropes of time travel stories, the major surprise during Arrival’s climax – spoiler: Louise’s deceased child hasn’t been born yet, and what appeared to be flashbacks were in fact flashforwards, depicting the fallout of her yet-to-occur relationship with fellow academic Ian – is basically a cheat. Seriously: it relies on scripting and editing gymnastics so deceptive that the audience isn’t played entirely fair (something that also marred Villeneuve’s otherwise-excellent Prisoners), dampening the impact of the revelation when it lands.
Then there’s how on the nose Arrival can be. For a film praised for its cleverness, it doesn’t really return the compliment to its viewers, regularly spelling out plot points and character motivations rather than trusting audiences to put two and two together (never has the line “You wanna make a baby?” been more cringeworthy than it is here).
Does it really matter if Arrival is overrated?
Now, ordinarily it would be easy to dismiss these as mostly immaterial quibbles – after all, if Arrival is still a mostly entertaining movie, who cares, right?
But the thing is, viewers like me went into Arrival with its overwhelmingly flattering critical buzz and award nominations feeding our expectations. This means that we were always going to hold it to a higher standard than your typical film, so when it didn’t quite meet that standard, the disappointment was correspondingly greater.
So I suppose to those of who were disappointed with Arrival, yes it does matter that it’s been over-hyped, because we were promised a game changing sci-fi experience and instead were delivered an entertaining (if uneven) yarn instead.
That said, if (like most people) you absolutely loved Arrival, I’m not here to change your mind – I’m glad you found a movie you can connect with. But if you did walk out of the cinema disappointed that the masterpiece you were promised never materialised, take heart knowing that – much like humanity in Arrival – you are not alone…