Arrival is one of the best movies of the year, one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, and just generally one of those movies that is as much fun to think about days later as it was to watch. It’s beautiful, with a lovely musical score; my wife compared it to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, which is also very strange, and is only one of our favorite movies ever. It’s also deeply, darkly cynical about human nature. Although this isn’t in any way a plot point, it does, kind of, ask the question ‘does mankind deserve, morally, to exist?’ The answer is, at best, an equivocal maybe. And also, of course we do. Of course.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor. As the movie begins, she goes to her class, starts her lecture, and it takes her a second to notice that there are almost no students there, and the ones who are there are intently focused on social media. Because alien space ships have landed, twelve of them, scattered randomly across the world, and everyone’s freaking out.
Among those freaking out is a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants her to join an effort to try to communicate with the aliens. Louise agrees, and is partnered with a physicist (Jeremy Renner), Ian Donnelly. They head out to Montana, where a camp full of various soldiers and technicians monitor this huge, majestic, absurdly vertical alien space ship. Louise and Ian immediately form a congenial, collegial partnership, despite their different disciplines–he figures out immediately that this is her thing, and she’s really good at it, and he’s better off in a subordinate role. The army guys, though, especially a mysterious Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), don’t get this at all. Louise has to carefully, patiently, explain the most basic concepts in linguistics to them, and they always seem suspicious. And of course, every visit to the alien craft, Ian and Louise are accompanied by a team of utterly superfluous security personnel, who range from useless to really really dangerous.
Meanwhile, three things keep happening. First, Louise is troubled by what appear to be flashback dreams of her young daughter, who she adored, and who died in her early teens of some unspecified terrible disease. (Or are they memories? Or something else?). Second, we keep seeing how the rest of the world is dealing with what newscasters call ‘the alien crisis.’ There are, after all, twelve of them, and the other nations in which they appear each have similar teams trying to communicate with the creatures, which have seven legs and which everyone has taken to calling ‘heptopods.’ And third, as Louise breaks through conceptually, and actually learns some of the heptopods’ language, she is increasingly convinced that their intentions are benign. This, despite the fact that one of their ‘words’ is, apparently, ‘weapon.’ (Which, she quickly tells the skeptical members of the team, could as easily be translated ‘tool’).
And, as she gets closer and closer to understanding the heptopods, the rest of the world grows increasingly hostile. A Chinese General, Shang (Tzi Ma), leads an international effort to attack and, if possible, destroy the heptopod ships, and the news gets increasingly frenzied. The soldiers in the Montana camp are not immune to it; they grow ever more frightened, and therefore, ever more dangerous. And this is one of the movie’s most essential insights–that we human beings become irrational when we get scared, and that we tend to respond to fear with paranoia, tribalism and violence. And, of course, that’s absolutely true. It’s a genuine insight into human nature.
Some critics have compared Arrival to Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which makes sense; both movies are, after all, about an essentially benign alien encounter, and an attempt at alien communication. In fact, the film’s score, by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, was a strong enough presence in the first scene in which Louise sees the alien ships that I was reminded of John Williams’ musical conversation with the aliens in Close Encounters. I love the Spielberg film, but Arrival provides a deeper, richer, truer pleasure. In Close Encounters, the humans greet the aliens rapturously, as Richard Dreyfuss heads fearlessly off to his own, personal, Close Encounter. In Arrival, mankind doesn’t play tuba music to the heptopods. Instead, some of our soldiers try to blow them up. And internationally, General Shang puts together a massively armed coalition. When Vikings first encountered the North American people they called the skræling, their first thought was to kill them and cut them open, to see if they were human.
(Worth pointing out that I saw Arrival a few days after the United States of American elected Donald Trump as President. Fear causes us to do irrational things sometimes).
But here’s what else the film does. It posits the truthfulness of linguistic relativity, of a radical and controversial notion in linguistics called the Sapir/Whorf theory. That theory posits that the structure of a language affects human cognition. That how we communicate can literally rewire our brains. It’s a theory linguists go back and forth on, and as Louise first explains it to the army guys, it’s clear that she’s something of a skeptic. But the film takes it very seriously indeed. In fact, it’s the solution; it’s the way the problem gets solved, not just the problem of learning how to write heptopod, but the problem of human fear and resultant violence.
I’m not going to give away the film’s ending. But it’s such a pleasure seeing a big budget Hollywood sci-fi film that takes ideas seriously, a film that respects our intelligence, a film in which linguistic erudition is the key to understanding the plot. And in which the plot can, in fact, be understood, because the film explains clearly the important ideas at its core.
And it’s a movie about pain, and loss, and the kind of human connection that becomes possible when we suffer together, when we acknowledge the core of aching loss we hold in common with other humans. It’s a movie with an ending that digs deeper, both intellectually and emotionally, when it comes time to resolve the questions it raises. It’s shattering.
Denis Villenueve directed, from a screen adaptation by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s superb short story “Story of your Life.” Heisserer spent ten years getting producers interested in his spec screenplay, which he wrote because he loved the story and couldn’t not write it. I get that. And they cast Amy Adams for the best of reasons; her wonderfully communicative eyes, eyes that tell the story from the inside of this one, hurting woman. I fell in love with the film that resulted. So will you.