Denis Villeneuve has had a very successful few years lately: Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Bladerunner 2049 (2017). Arrival is based on a short story, which I read before I first saw the movie, by Ted Chiang (Story of Your Life). I believe the short story is better than the film simply for having better character development, but then the film goes to the core theme more directly, so they both get the same rating.
When ETs arrive, most films believe the only follow up is all-out war- because apparently, aliens are as primitive as humans were until long ago when the first thing we’d do upon contact with a foreign race was to destroy them. Now, nations still exploit each other, but that is a much more long-term process. Why would aliens necessarily be malevolent, however? Well, most science fiction writers and filmmakers can’t see any reason why an alien race would make contact in the first place unless for recourses. Arrival gets over this by a neat circular solution, that ties the plot together: the ETs give humans their language, and in 3000 years the humans help the ETs. This is also original because it has nothing to do with technology. The language (due to some pseudoscience about linguistics) enables one to think outside of linear time. One of the most admirable things about the film is the manner in which every element is connected to the central theme. The aliens use nonlinear symbols that are disconnected from their speech, which is convenient because the humans need to learn it, and they can’t speak alien. Specifically one human, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) our protagonist. The experimental structure of the film is successful and allows the plot to work on two levels: on the level of science fiction adventure, which itself is better than the majority of sci-fi plots (the arrival), and also on the personal level (the life story). The structure of the film mixes the main plot with flash-forwards
The question of the film is really- if you could see the future, and you knew where your life choices would lead, would you still make them? In this position, our protagonist does make the right choices, as hard as they are. Now, it’s entirely circular, she sees the result of the choice she will make and this leads her to make those choices, just like in the sci-fi plot- she learns the language because she will learn the language in the future/she knows the solutions to problems because of information she receives in the future etc. Because of this, David Mamet in his Masterclass course was not wrong when he said that it skips over the most challenging aspect, how to communicate with the ETs. He wants to raise the bar in terms of pure entertainment factor, as a linear plot is less contrived than the circular- ends determine the means/effect before the cause- structure that we get. But if we had it his way, would this film be as psychologically interesting? I don’t think so. I do think the film works, but it must make a compromise, and, like our hero, makes the right choice to prioritize themes and symbolism, and ask forgiveness for the rather Christopher Nolanesque plot.