I don't know about you but I have always wanted to know why it is that the spoken form of Portuguese, while a member of the family of Romance languages, sounds nothing at all like any of its relatives and is virtually impossible to pick so much as one word from that might be familiar if you already have an understanding of Spanish, Italian or French.
Tantalisingly, the opening scenes of Arrival promise to unlock this mystery at last. A university lecturer enters a lecture hall and launches into a lesson in which she says she will explain precisely what it is that makes Portuguese sound the way it does sound. But abruptly the lecture is interrupted. Twelve mysterious black objects have appeared in the skies above twelve countries, evacuation sirens sound across the campus and the whole world is put into a state of emergency.
Leaving aside my disappointment about being thwarted just when I'd got my hopes up about understanding the mysterious evolution of Portuguese pronunciation, (not that I can really - the film makers really got my hopes up), I was also somewhat surprised at a public policy level by this turn of events. If I ruled the world and twelve strange objects appeared in the sky, I would do everything in my power to ensure things continued to run normally and that no cause for panic was supplied to the populace by anything my government did. "Steady as she goes" would be my motto. I would play down the whole situation, avoiding any suggestion that mankind might be under any sort of threat.
But no, in Arrival the decision is taken to close everything and frighten everybody and call on that well-known Bond sub-genre, the hotshot professor of linguistics, to deal with the conundrum the strange airborne objects pose. When it transpires that there are two hotshot linguistics professors in the running, each almost equally qualified to take on aliens, a sudden death play-off about the meaning of the word "war" in Sanskrit settles things, (???!?), and a woman is helicoptered down to Montana for a crash course in alien-speak.
Around this point - or possibly right from the start of the film - someone gets the blue filter stuck so firmly on the camera lens that the director gives up and as a result the audience has to put up with an indigo bathed world for almost two hours. The plot is lagubrious and the all round gloomy colouring just adds to the sensation that one is not being whisked along but instead wading through water.
Maybe it would have been all right if the film had been genuinely clever rather than just thinking itself clever. But the lack of depth to the ideas was breathtaking - leaving me wondering whether that early scene on Portuguese pronunciation was cut short mainly because none of the researchers could be bothered to find out enough about the subject to actually supply the information needed to extend it.
There were times, in fact, when you wondered how the script could have got through what we are always led to believe is the excoriatingly rigorous process Hollywood subjects everything too. Which did I hate the most: the pompous parsing of a sentence for Forrest Whittaker's benefit; the enormous great hole in the plot which leads a phsycist to leave his wife because she decides to have a baby, even though her understanding of time means she knows it will not survive - as a physicist surely he above all understands that, with the definition of time that the two of them both accept, she cannot decide to do anything but what has already been done; the fact that the person who translates a word into English as "weapon", helpfully points out, after the damage has been done, that it could also be translated as "tool" - so why didn't she to start with?; the failure to make the effort to understand international diplomacy enough to know that the head of China's army is not the individual who singlehanded decides whether that nation goes to war; the dig at rightwing shock jocks, and therefore at their listeners, a symptom of why we have ended up where we are today (that is, the film chooses to sneer at those kinds of people and their audiences, rather than either ignoring them for the purposes of the story - or including them and trying to understand);the cardboard characterisation; the mystery of why anyone would be swayed from doing anything by having his wife's dying words whispered into his ears by a stranger.
In short this film does not look very nice, it has almost no plot impulsion and, while it has a romance developing at its centre, it chooses not to pay any attention to that. It also makes no sense whatsoever and is intellectualy incoherent.
On the plus side, the aliens are cute, part-octopus, part-elephant leg umbrella stand, part Henry Moore figure -
- and Australia comes out of things rather well.