Arrival (Non-zero sum game)

Rating: Severe


Year: 2016
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Spoiler alert in effect.

So I was pretty late in watching this film but I’m glad I made time to go and watch it while it was still showing. Based on the positive reviews and recommendations from friends, I knew this film was more than your typical sci-fi alien story. It wasn’t about the action, or shooting up aliens to defend our world, but at the core is a story about a mother and her child. It’s so refreshing and nice to see a female lead, especially in a sci-fi film, a genre that’s been dominated by males. With Denis Villeneuve at the helm, this isn’t too much of a surprise. He also had a female lead (Emily Blunt) in his previous film Sicario (definitely worth watching if you have time). And what better person to play the main character than Amy Adams, the industry’s female Leonardo DiCaprio; nominated 5 times for an Academy Award without winning a single one. This has been another good year for her, with two potential Oscar-worthy roles, in this film and in Nocturnal Animals, which I have yet to watch. Fingers crossed next year’s Oscars will finally be her chance to shine.

Anyways, back to the film. From some of the interviews I’ve watched with the cast and just the general feedback from my friends, I quickly realised the plot wasn’t a straightforward one. The cast would always answer with “We can’t really talk about the plot without giving it all away”. To be honest, this made me even more excited to see it. There’s nothing better than not knowing what’s going to happen and being given the chance to piece together the story over the course of the film. And it definitely delivered in that aspect. At the beginning, I thought all the memories she had with her child was from the past, something she was reliving as she communicated with the aliens. Then as the film progressed, it turns out she’s seeing the future. The way the film reveals this is done so expertly and subtly, giving credit to the audience that we’ll be able to figure it ourselves without being spoon-fed. The all important virtue: show, not tell. Sure, there’s always a few lingering questions and confusions with movies like these, but I think that’s part of the appeal. The film purposely doesn’t answer every question because they want you to interpret it yourself. Just like Inception or Interstellar.

The other element of the plot I like is the focus on family and motherhood. How rare it is to see a sci-fi film focus on something other than shooting aliens with big guns? Look at Independence Day (and Independence Day 2 which was a horrible sequel), Pacific Rim or Battleship to name a few. It centres around boys and their toys, blowing up everything to drive the aliens back to where they came from. Arrival takes a much more intellectual and emotional perspective on the human-alien interaction, focusing on the language barrier and creating a personal connection with Abbott and Costello (the two aliens). Far less action and explosions, and much more research and brains. So if you come in expecting the former, than you will be sorely disappointed. There is the occasional explosion and gunfire but that’s not the focus. What you’ll find is an introspective look at how all beings are connected, and the universality of emotions. I love how Louis (Amy Adams) and Ian (Jeremy Renner) can work so well together, despite coming from opposing field of studies, the former a linguist and the latter a scientist. While arts and maths seem to be diametrically opposite at first glance, there is a lot of underlying similarities between them which I find fascinating. There is a science to art, and an art to science and both are necessary to achieve the best. This collaboration is just another one of the themes that runs throughout this film. It really shows that everyone CAN unite together, how aliens are not always the bad guys, and that despite knowing what is going to happen in the future, it’s still worth it to carry on, because while there’s pain, there is still joy along the way.

louis and ian.jpg
Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams

In terms of the aliens and the spaceship, and their design, I thought it was done well and didn’t make the film tacky at all. A lot of sci-fi/alien movies often reveal the aliens only right at the end, or never at all, and show a cartoonish alien which just detracts from the whole feel of the film. I found that the design of the aliens here were unique but also familiar enough so as to not steal the spotlight away from their language. I loved the visual of their language. It looks so artistic and well constructed, like calligraphy but more detailed and complex. It ties back to the whole art and science thing. The words in their language look like a piece of art, where different parts can be interpreted to mean different things, similar to the way Chinese characters are built. But there is a science beneath them too, where spacial distance between characters can be mathematically interpreted to give meaning. Only when Louis’ and Ian’s expertise are combined, can the language be successfully translated. That’s the real beauty behind it.

Alien’s language
The science in the art

So I pretty much like everything about it except for the pacing. At times, it felt ridiculously slow and I felt myself zoning out. I understand some of them were establishing shots of the location, and others were about setting the mood and tension. But it made the film feel too sluggish and lack excitement. While I know it’s not an action movie, the pacing should be fast enough to keep the audience engaged and be consistent with the fact that they are running against time to decipher the alien language. It picked up momentum towards the end, but the middle section I felt was just too slow and not enough happened to further the plot. It’s not a big issue I had with it, but did test my patience a few times.

Overall, it’s still a highly enjoyable film to watch, with a brilliant screenplay, cinematography, and great performances by the lead actors. Be prepared to hear a lot more from Arrival as awards season quickly approaches.

Other ratings:
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Metacritic: 81/100
IMDb: 8.4/10
Cinemascore: B

Discussion questions:
1. Do you prefer this type of sci-fi or your typical action-filled one?
2. Would you still continue on the same path, even if you knew what would happen in the end?
3. Did you find the pacing too slow or just right?


10 thoughts on “Arrival (Non-zero sum game)

  1. As you mention in your title non zero sum game comes up in the film. I thought it’s use in the film causes more confusion than enlightenment. Do you feel the screenwriter used it correctly? I take the term to mean that some will win and some will lose whereas the film suggests a win-win situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I never really thought too much about that word actually. Thanks for the interesting comment on it.

      Now that I think about it, I feel the screenwriter wanted to juxtapose it against the term “zero-sum game”, which in my understanding means one person gets something while someone loses something of equivalent value. Thus, zero-sum, since they cancel each other out. This comes from an economic context, which is where I first heard the word, so please correct me if it has other meanings.

      So, using the term “non-zero sum game”, I think he means that every player can gain something, without anyone losing anything, thus a “win-win” situation (although I guess it could also mean “lose-lose” or a combination that doesn’t add to zero). In this light, I think the screenwriter did you use it correctly, although I agree with you, in that it causes more confusion because of it’s somewhat technical meaning. It didn’t really add to the film and become somewhat buried in everything else.

      Thanks for the comment though! Made me do some thinking haha 🙂


  2. I think the scene with the non zero sum game answer for her daughter was important because it was then that I realized she was “remembering” the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also, it was the point of the whole movie. Like you stated, this isn’t a fight the aliens movie with winners and losers. It’s a movie about cooperation between us and the aliens and more importantly among ourselves. Win win!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True! I think I tend to get bogged down in the little details and think too much that I forget the bigger picture haha. Thanks for pointing that out. I do agree with you. It was the turning point in the film where the audience realised the time-dimensionally of the film. And I guess it does represent the message of the film. Very insightful! Thanks for taking the time to comment Patty. I appreciate any discussion 🙂


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