Arrival has some moments, many deep loud sounds and a cool circular alphabet, but is burdened with yet another trite spin on our perception of time. The fact is that we human are constrained to a linear understanding of time due to gravity – not only the rotation of the earth but that of the moon and sun as well.
Our feet are firmly planted to this ground. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughter House Five: Transfalmadorians saw time like they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eye-hole through which he could look, and welded to that eye-hole were six feet of pipe.
Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, humans not limited by that six feet of pipe, have made us aware that time is relative, not a constant, but a variable. This idea of time being a dimension is gold for science fiction – including my own Anori Trilogy – because the author is only limited by perceptions, able to contract and pause, even reverse what we thought could only be one way. And yet the startling concept is regularly fumbled, beginning with H.G. Wells rudimentary application in The Time Machine.The incipient pattern has continued. Inception created a childish world where the rate of time slows by halves in the subconscious, while a vast array of movies – such as the Terminator franchise – send messengers from the future to wreak havoc on today. Interstellar offers the tritest concept of all: a physical space where moments may be checked out of a galactic library. Arrival doesn’t do much better than this. (Spoiler alert unless you’re reading this in the future.) The opening presents itself as a flashback, only to be revealed at the end as the future – not a sleight of hand but a lie.
It, like Passengers, was doomed from the get-go, as Hollywood knows nothing about time, except that it’s money and that the first box office weekend better not be a black hole.
The most provocative film on time would have to be Primer; everything it lacks in budget ($7,000) is made up for in concept, the kind of thing even Einstein might enjoy.