I AM SPOILING THE END OF THE MOVIE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN'T YET SEEN ARRIVAL.
I figured some folks might want to discuss details about the end of the movie here (assuming anyone ever wants to talk about something as frivolous as movies ever again, which I admit has been hard for me right now, but I know it's going to be important to try to remain sane at this moment, and this will help.)
So the big twist in Arrival is an intriguing one, because it's not so much a twist that introduces a new plot point as one that recontextualizes a story thread running throughout the movie. What we thought were flashbacks to Amy Adams raising her daughter, and her daughter's eventual death, are surprisingly revealed to be flash FORWARDS. In concept, this is sort of an intriguing idea, turning something on its head that was right in front of us all along, and allowing us to be emotionally affected by it in a new way.
But I thought the execution of this story turn had some issues. First of all, I don't think the movie is very clear about when it exactly wants you to put together what's going on. If you look at something like, say, The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, once the twist is revealed, you realize there were moments early on in the movie that take on new meaning with this new information, but there still is a very clear MOMENT when the film signals "now the rug is going to be pulled out from under you."
But here, I wondered when I was actually supposed to put all the pieces together. There's that sequence where Adams's daughter draws a picture of Adams and Renner with the canary in the cage, describing it as Mommy and Daddy saving the world, and this kind of sort of feels like the moment the twist is really revealed...except for watching it, I didn't realize it then. My thought at the time was, so the kid could predict the future? Huh. The fuzziness over "what is really happening" continued through the next few flashbacks (well, forwards), and I think it only finally clicked for me during the sequence with the foreign leader, and then I had my own personal "aha" moment. But I genuinely wondered if I was supposed to have clocked it earlier, and I think the story suffers a bit from not being clear about this.
Aside from this, I have numerous issues with how a lot of this played out. A number of moments feel totally false -- "Now I know why my husband left me" was a really weird beat for me (especially cause it's delivered to her husband), and I didn't buy at all that the Chinese general would have capitulated simply because Adams told him his wife's dying words.
I think there are clarity issues regarding the alien language -- Adams gets the black goop on her, and one of the aliens says that now she has the weapon, allowing her to understand the language which she then is able to teach to other people through her classes and books, it seems. Or does she? Do you need to touch the goop to understand the language, and Adams is the only person who does now? Or can you learn it if Adams teaches you? Does one person need to touch the goop, and then they can spread it to the rest of humankind without the goop? I thought the proof of concept here was muddy.
I also don't think Adams and Renner had ANY scenes together that would justify them falling in love at the end of the movie.
Maybe most of all, I think the movie opens up a can of worms in the last reel that's actually fairly interesting, but feels like it needed to be explored more. (This is the rare film that, once it ended, had me thinking, I'd have wanted to sit here and see more of this.) "And now everyone on the planet knows everything about their entire life" doesn't seem like the conclusion to a story, it seems like the set-up for one, a movie about whether or not we have enough free will to change our own destinies from what we see in the future. I was even confused about the final message of the movie -- the question the film seems to be posing is, if you knew your child would die young, would you go ahead and have them anyway? But if Adams can see her future by using the alien language, does she even have a choice in this matter? Isn't she going to get husband and kid no matter what, whether she likes it or not?
All of this is to say, I think the movie bites off quite a bit more than it's prepared to chew in the final reel, and that left the ending of the movie a bit unsatisfying for me. I still think there's much to admire about the film, but I wish it had stuck the landing more.