It’s challenging to talk about some of Arrival’s better aspects without dropping spoilers, but we’ll do our best to keep the bomb bay doors closed.
After all, director Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario) new science fiction drama – adapted from Ted Chiang’s multiple-award-winning 1999 novella Story Of Your Life – is highly reliant on the viewer discovering its many surprises at the same rate as its central characters.
And as we are all familiar with the experience of being surprised, sometimes these events can be pleasant, and sometimes they can feel like a con job from up on high. Or from down low, depending on the type of surprise.
Which is why I left the screening last week feeling somewhat conned by the resolution, more by the one to its central first-contact-with-aliens plotline than to its parallel rumination on the journey of life.
But later, I came to wonder, what if the point of it all is NOT the first contact with aliens, but about how we steer ourselves toward the choices we make in life? And if, from the deterministic slant the film adopts, we don’t even have a choice in the first place … what spurs us to act, then?
After all, Chiang (the Arrival screenplay was adapted by Lights Out’s Eric Hesserier) is noted for writing “carefully considered, deeply researched parables that use scientific concepts to illuminate the human condition” (quoted from a 2015 interview with Chiang by Taylor Clark in The California Sunday Magazine).
And illuminate the human condition, Arrival does in sometimes overt and sometimes rather subtle ways. While the obvious type is left to supporting performers like Forest Whitaker’s gruff Army colonel and Jeremy Renner’s slightly cranky theoretical physicist, the subtler, overarching journey here belongs to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
She is called up when 12 huge alien spaceships arrive on Earth and park themselves in seemingly unrelated spots around the planet. Banks is drafted into the team investigating the ship that has landed in Montana, and tasked with translating the extraterrestrials’ language.
It’s not easy. The aliens are seven-limbed creatures that seem more out of Lovecraft than Clarke, and these “Heptapods” have a starkly … alien language, both spoken as well as written (Chiang’s story makes a greater distinction than the movie does between the two forms).
This is where the film challenges us to engage our brains for a change, raising concepts that you don’t find in your garden-variety sci-fi blockbuster.
Arrival would seem to prefer that you say “science fiction” out in full, thank you, spurring the viewer to think about concepts like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity – which holds that the structure of a language influences the speaker’s world-view or understanding/thought processes.
And that’s what happens to Louise as she immerses herself into the Heptapods’ language, and starts to perceive things in a similar way to how the Heptapods perceive the universe – putting her on an almost level footing with them, while elevating her above the bickering, suspicious Earthlings she must work with (and sometimes, seemingly, against).
Arrival challenges viewers to pay attention and ponder. It’s not escapist fare, even if it effortlessly draws us into its setting – a planet that’s slowly choking on its own fear and paranoia when confronted with a truth greater than our narrow perception allows us to accept.
This is polished and assured filmmaking that is so confident in the story it is telling, and in the fine cast that helps to sell it, that it doesn’t stop to let you question or consider the way things are resolved. (Nor, as mentioned earlier, does it worry about leaving some of us with initial feelings of being conned.)
To call it thought-provoking would be stating the obvious; but its takeaways are numerous, and varied. While the whole notion of linguistic relativity might seem like some sort of naive, kumbaya-ish desire for homogeneous communication as a solution for the world’s ills, I’d like to think that Arrival also celebrates the wonderful and diverse forms of communication that species – not just the so-called higher intelligences – have developed.
After all, even when we’re speaking the same language, we fail to connect in so many ways every single day, creating chasms and choosing to dwell in those empty spaces. Arrival is a reminder that any gulf can be bridged with simple things: trust, openness and empathy. Components found quite easily in any zone, twilit or otherwise, if we just choose to look for them.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma