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Why ‘Arrival’ Matters

maxresdefaultArrival is one of those Hollywood films that catches critics by surprise for a number of reasons.  It’s smarter than the average “alien invasion” film, but even smarter than the average output of “science fiction” from major studios.

I was impressed by Arrival’s trailer’s ability to pull off an impressive task.  It fills its two and a half minutes with enough intrigue, plot points and eye-candy.  But, strangely enough, it primarily pulls from the film’s first half-hour.

I can’t recall the last time a trailer felt to give away the entire film’s plot in an attempt to hook an audience, only to discover that there’s so much more in that entire film.

These days, we need more movies, especially studio movies, like Arrival, because we certainly don’t ever expect them.  These are the actual movies that The Player lampooned (and foreshadowed) we need now more than ever!

Everything old is new again.  And again.  And again.

Today’s box office is a barrage of sequels, remakes and reboots.  Franchises offer sure bet returns for studios, while even the slightest risk of “original” material contains an ounce of familiarity.  That’s a given that I podcast about (blatant plug for Forces of Geek Presents OH NO THEY DIDN’T, available free on iTunes and Google Play).

Arrival’s key character Lousie (aided by very controlled performance from Amy Adams) experiences increasing flashbacks, memories, and visions related to her work in communicating with the aliens.

But so much of what we’re seeing as an audience, especially in that first half hour, is too a flashback of the past science fiction we’ve celebrated.  The “canary in a coal mine” caged bird brought on-board the ship, and the subsequent removal of protective uniform, comes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The alien ships positioned over multiple parts of the world is familiar from V.  The aliens themselves appear from a menacing mist on tall multi-pod legs like, well, The Mist.  And so on, and so on.

Familiarity breeds contempt with wiser movie audiences, and tries (sometimes too hard) to satisfy the average movie-goer.  While the first half of Arrival delivers on the promise of its trailer, it morphs into a film of great depth and mind-bending originality.  That’s pretty risky.

arrival-2016-new-uk-trailer

I’m not saying the majority of audiences will feel the rug’s been removed from their Earth vs. The Flying Saucers expectations, but it’s likely.

Cinemascore movie polling has audience sentiment for Arrival at a B.  That’s below the average for the Transformers franchise, or even the recent (and god-awful) Inferno.  It’s equal to moviegoers sentiment of Independence Day: Resurgence.   

Though moderately budgeted compared to Independence Day: Resurgence, Arrival will not have the equal overseas box-office, not did it have an equivalent domestic opening.  Though its $24 million take this past weekend was impressive, the movie’s smart science-fiction is likely to, um, alienate audiences that gave the bigger Cinemascore to Almost Christmas, Trolls, Dr. Strange and so on.

But, at the end of it all, Paramount Pictures was wise to put this film into their holiday/awards slate.  Though it was a risky adaptation of an original short story, the studio has embraced the critical reaction to the movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up snagging multiple award nominations in the coming months.

But money talks, and Paramount already claimed a $500 Million loss for this and next year’s slate that includes the big bomb Ben Hur, lackluster returns on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Zoolander 2 and Star Trek Beyond, and the cringeworthy how-did-this-get-made future dud Monster Trucks.

Ironically, two of this year’s best genre films, in my opinion, are Paramount films – Arrival and 10 Cloverfield Lane.  The later being the studio’s biggest box-office performer so far.  The Cinemascore rating on it, however, a B-.

So what does it all this mean for the future of smart science-fiction from big studios?  Probably nothing.  Films like this emerge from Hollywood rarely, but even rarer do they make the same money (all-in with worldwide gross) than their dumber box-office brethren.

We can always expect indie films to deliver more on smart-sci fi, and there have been outstanding examples in recent years—Under the Skin, Primer, Ex Machina.  And we can always expect them to have a lower Cinemascore than a Transformers sequel.

Occasionally there’s a big budget genre thrill that takes audiences money and acclaim—The Martian and Gravity.  But neither of these films carried the intelligence, or certainly the reliance on non-linear storytelling, that Arrival loads.

For the studios that want to have both brains and box-office, those expecting more from an audience’s embrace are best to be patient.  Arrival is a step in the right direction, opening, and lingering, on the minds of moviegoers past its viewing.

The language of cinema can be messy, and sometimes seen as a weapon against their expectations or a tool to expand them.  This is certainly a film that could get average Cinemascore moviegoers to understand the difference.

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