I was eager to see the movie Arrival because my novel Forbidden Sanctuary is also a first-contact story involving a linguist and a bunch of aliens. There isn’t much overlap between the stories, though. My aliens are pretty human-like — that’s the point of the novel, really. Arrival‘s aliens are spectacularly, um, alien. The plot involves Amy Adams desperately trying to understand what they’re saying before various bad things happen. And it’s really well done, up to the point where the movie springs its science-fictiony twist on us to tie things up, with the result that we’re desperately try to rethink everything we’ve seen as the movie rockets to its conclusion.
I don’t think the twist works. The idea is that, when Amy Adams finally has her breakthrough and understands the aliens’ language, her perception of time is altered at the same time, such that all time is a continuous now to her, instead of a linear progression from past to present to future. (Or something like that.) So that some events that we perceived as flashbacks were actually flash-forwards — except that they weren’t, not really, because they are all part of the eternal now. (Or something like that.) So she is able to use information from the sort-of future to solve the crisis happening in the sort-of now. And over this is layered the personal story of the sort-of-future Amy Adams deciding to have a child, despite knowing that the even-more-future Amy Adams will see that child die, and her husband will leave her when she tells him what he’s done.
This is not the kind of complexity that a viewer can deal with while linearly watching a movie. I am OK with time paradoxes — I have read Jeffrey Carver novels, and I generally understand what is happening (that may be a bit of an exaggeration). But even I couldn’t completely follow what was happening in real time while watching Arrival, and I wasn’t interested enough to re-watch the thing.
As a writer of science-fictiony novels, I am always worried about how much time I should spend in a novel explaining stuff — inventing some bogus theory about how the portal works in my Portal series, for example. Or, perhaps more important, making sure that whatever bogus theory I have in my head about the portal is internally consistent, so that readers don’t get annoyed at plot developments that don’t quite make sense. My sense is that readers will forgive a lot of minor inconsistencies if the story is interesting enough. But I don’t want to piss them off.
I’m afraid that Arrival, for all its virtues, ended up pissing me off.