*Minor spoilers ahead*
It’s easy to make assumptions about what kind of film Arrival is just by glimpsing one of its ominous black “shell” spaceships. Those assumptions would likely be wrong, though.
Based off of Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival does indeed center on making contact with aliens. But what’s less evident in stills and posters is that director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer were just as interested in Chiang’s larger themes and ideas as they were his premise. This is the study of humanity itself, not just extraterrestrials.
Told from the vantage point of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert in linguistics, we see the world staggered when twelve monolithic UFOs spontaneously appear at various locations around the globe. Classes are suspended, parking garages are tangled, and fighter jets race overhead to places unknown. It’s a sobering experience, one that Villeneuve captures brilliantly without belaboring the widespread chaos like so many other “invasion” films. He keeps us close to Louise. He keeps it personal. Even as we learn of riots and problems in other foreign countries, the story is always told from right over Louise’s shoulder.
There’s a feeling of helplessness that pervades this first act of Arrival. Louise goes from grief-stricken in the film’s somber opening to somewhat despondent after returning home when her lesson plan gets rudely interrupted by our new visitors. What else can she do? What could any of us do? She’s a victim of circumstance just like most of the world’s population.
That still holds true even after Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) knocks on her office door the following day and asks Louise to decode the alien language — given her translation expertise and preexisting security clearance. Louise tells Weber that it’s impossible for her to translate without being in the same room as them, and he leaves thinking Louise is simply trying to create an opportunity for herself. That very night Weber returns convinced, however, essentially ordering Louise to join him in his army helicopter to fly to the Montana landing site.
Louise is brought up to speed quickly so that she can begin translating the aliens, which are known as Heptapods given their seven-arm structure. It’s unnerving to say the least, because Louise isn’t ready for this encounter. None of us would be no matter our curiosity. In no time at all Louise goes from a lecture hall to a literal gravity well inside one of these shell-like ships, being forcefully hurled upward to start a dialogue with newly discovered intelligent life.
Again Villeneuve masterfully builds tension by forcing Louise to move at the military’s pace, which is precise and implies far more familiarity with the situation than she has. He generates a heightened fear of the unknown, and the sensation is made even more palpable thanks to Adams’s performance. She’s anxious, in awe, and barely has enough time to react let alone form a plan.
Failure To Communicate
Communication is the crux of Arrival. Not only is there pressure for Louise and her astrophysicist colleague Ian (Jeremy Renner) to acquire the answer to one simple question, “What is your purpose on Earth,” but information needs to be shared between other countries that are also trying to gather intelligence. It’s not enough to simply understand the Heptapods; clearly communicating with other teams around the planet becomes exceedingly important as tensions mount. While the scientific community seeks answers, those who feel more threatened are compelled to use force with the Heptapods as more conspiracies arise.
Not only is a “first contact” story with an emphasis on linguistics a unique approach, but it’s also brilliantly practical. Seeing Louise’s process of establishing a vocabulary, coming up with new methods to communicate, and attempting to translate the Heptapod language is as well-conceived as it is fascinating. Her journey may start somewhat scattered, but watching Louise adapt and take control of this larger than life situation is enthralling in its own right. It’s also scientific, measured, and sensible in a way that literary science fiction should be.
However, Arrival doesn’t forget the unpredictable human component along the way either. This isn’t exactly a world that always works well together. Sharing information becomes a matter of national security. Each team’s work uncovers secrets about the Heptapods, and information is power. Discovery becomes its own type of competition, and Louise and her team are forced to work against the clock. Even though there isn’t a countdown necessarily, it’s only a matter of time before our species does something thoroughly stupid and damns us all. We clearly have trust issues.
So It Goes
But there’s even more to Arrival than its inherently compelling foundation. It delves deeper into speech itself, with linguistic relativity as a crucial plot point. To save you a Google search, linguistic relativity is the theory that a person’s language structure affects his or her cognition or worldview. How we speak influences how we think, more or less, and how this idea intermingles with elements of determinism in the film is what elevates Arrival from great to remarkable.
Arrival is affecting in a way that few other films are. While your mileage may vary, this is a life-affirming story—one that recognizes joy and sorrow as two sides of the same coin. While there are many comparisons one could make to other films, and specifically one literary classic, Arrival excels and distinguishes itself by blending facts with philosophy. It asks the question: if you could do it all again, would you? Suffice it to say that the answer is surprisingly heartfelt.
A film as multifaceted and deeply resonating as Arrival comes along maybe once every year, if we’re lucky. It’s not enough to say that it’s superbly written, thoughtfully directed, and emotionally acted. It’s certainly all of those things, but the sum is also greater than its parts. This is a story that will stick with you, that warrants addition viewings, that begs for further exploration. Maybe it’s a bit premature to call it the best film of 2016 given that awards season has just begun, but the bar has just been set extraordinarily high.