Film of the Week: Arrival
If a science-fiction film featured a scene in which scientists debated the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,” what might you expect that hypothesis to concern? The rate of combustibility of rocket fuel required to propel a metallic cigar-shaped object to the edge of the universe? The likelihood that extra-terrestrial beings would come in insectoid or jellyfish-like form? Wrong on both counts. The hypothesis, otherwise known as the theory of linguistic relativity, refers to the idea that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or worldview. This is clearly not an irrelevant idea to apply to art, in which each new work or utterance has the potential to embody a worldview that’s entirely new and unique. And it’s certainly a useful idea to apply to cinema, in which each newly created on-screen universe carries, through its style and execution, a meaning and outlook entirely its own. Well, if only . . .
It’s tempting to think of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival as essentially a movie about cinema—especially if you’re one of those critics who has got into the habit of thinking that pretty much every movie is really about cinema. But when Arrival’s earthling boffin heroes venture into a visiting spacecraft, they enter a dark chamber in which the aliens can be seen floating in brightly lit white gas on the other side of a rectangular plate of glass. In other words, they’ve walked into a movie theater to gaze at an illuminated screen. Yet what this particular movie theater has to offer isn’t a VFX blockbuster, but a pensive if emotionally charged story about questions of communication and the ability to read and understand onscreen messages; with much of Arrival taking place in that cinema-like spaceship space, this is quite literally a chamber drama.
That’s perhaps to be expected from Villeneuve, a director whose films are sometimes genre-based, some closer to the mainstream than others, but all of them a little odd (few as odd as his early Canadian films August 32nd on Earth  and Maelstrom ). They also often have a way of taking themselves a little seriously. In mood, this being a film of looming dark skies and solemn signs and wonders, Arrival is not a million parsecs from Enemy (2013), Villeneuve’s conceptual doppelgänger drama—and certainly, the film’s squid-like space creatures look like distant relatives of the mysterious giant spider that loomed at Enemy’s end.
Arrival possibly takes itself more seriously than any Villeneuve film yet—it’s about a big topic, the possibility of our saving the world through mutual understanding and a mixture of quiet compassion and lucid logical thought. But it also has a degree of grace and imaginative elegance—which is why it feels less like an alien-visitation genre movie than a chin-stroking art film in VFX disguise. Tonally, at least, it’s a close relation to Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris—although in most other ways, it feels like a less sentimental cousin to Robert Zemeckis’s SETI-themed Contact (1997).
The film begins with a montage of the home life of linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), fast-forwarding us through her career as the single mother of a young girl: from her daughter’s baby years, through childhood, to tragically young death from illness. Cut to a tense, solemn Dr. Banks lecturing to a sparsely attended university class on the Portuguese language. Suddenly it becomes apparent why the class isn’t paying attention. News stations are announcing that the aliens have landed in 12 locations around the world, including the U.S. These are spaceships that seem, judging by the way they’re shot in silhouette, to be vertically suspended black tubes with a touch of Brancusi in their curvature, although in some shots they appear more like pancakes stood on end. They have a certain, let’s say, monolithic quality that might remind you of other science-fiction films in which galaxy-hopping alien artifacts turn out to have Much to Teach Us.
The visitor’s arrival doesn’t necessarily bode well, not least in terms of the panicked human response it triggers: there’s a boom in agitated cult activity, rioting takes place, TV demagogues call for aggressive human action. In short, the people of earth do not calmly stand waiting for the five-note Close Encounters leitmotif to sound. However, a linguist is needed by the U.S. Army to communicate with the beings, and Banks is called in; she has previously helped out translating Farsi, possibly a wry joke about just how extra-terrestrial the American military might consider Middle Eastern cultures to be.
Under the command of tight-lipped Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Banks is flown to the spaceship with physicist Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner, playing a muted part that’s in sharp contrast to his usual action roles). They debate the correct approach to these creatures, with Connelly theorising and Banks admonishing him, “How about we talk to them before we start doing maths problems on them?” But to talk to the aliens, humans have to understand them, and the deep sighs and whale-like moans emitted by these creatures aren’t easily interpreted.
In fact, the aliens turn out not to speak language as we normally imagine it. Giant octopus-like creatures (they’re actually seven-legged, and so dubbed “heptapods”) with dark, pachyderm-like skin, and star-like protuberances on the tips of their tentacles, which emit clouds of black ink. The ink swirls in the clouds to form circles, each circle having little nubby embellishments around the edges. Banks works out that these circles are their language, but a language that doesn’t represent uttered sounds, and that isn’t linear. Rather than representing a succession of words or ideas succeeding each other in time, each message conveys a multitude of meanings, simultaneously: “They can write a complex sentence in two seconds,” marvels Banks. To stretch the allegorical point one last time, it’s a bit like the way that a mass of information is revealed all in one go in a single frame of a movie.
Eric Heisserer’s script isn’t afraid to dwell on the theoretical. The humans want to ask the question, “What is your purpose on earth?”, but in order to do that, Banks explains, you have to make it apparent to the aliens what a question is in the first place—something that may not be a workable concept in their repertoire. So she breaks down the logical string of concepts by which communication works. “You approach language like a mathematician—you know that, right?” Connelly tells her—clearly ultimate praise coming from him. Heisserer and Villeneuve too approach telling their story like mathematicians, at least theorists. Arrival is overtly about ideas rather than sublime awe, or deep human feelings, or insight into one’s own nature—all of which were, in an unashamedly New Age way, at the heart of Contact. (That film’s alternative tagline might have been, “She looked into deep space—and found her dead dad.”)
Arrival’s ideas about language prove to be related to the question of the reversibility of time; and there’s a fundamental deception in the film’s telling that makes the story not quite what it seems, resolving in a twist perhaps a little less wham-bam than, but certainly as sneaky as, one that M. Night Shyamalan might have attempted. It’s done cleverly, though, and in a way that ties up all the film’s themes. There is ultimately something a bit soft and nebulous about Arrival: for all the forehead-furrowing concepts it entertains, it can’t actually, as a big-budget Hollywood movie, sell us big ideas without packing them in the cotton floss of meaningful intimate experience, which was also the case with Interstellar and even Gravity (one movie where the protagonist could easily have done without a heart-wrenching back story).
Nevertheless, any soppy “human interest” angle is offset by a sober style—although Villeneuve’s sobriety can feel a little trowelled-on. And the key human presence in the story is steely enough: the concerned, candid face of Amy Adams, gazing at the enigmatic other behind the glass not with dumb awe but as if she’s trying to figure it all out piece by piece, a methodical semiotic sleuth.
There are some distinctive special effects: like the climax of Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special earlier this year, Arrival tries to give us a new visual twist on familiar ideas of the uncanny alien sublime. I’m thinking of the way that the spaceships seem to float like feathers while having a black, stony surface that suggests the weight of lead; and the way that the alien ink swirls in mid-air like diaphanous liquid chiffon. There’s also a nicely portentous effect in Jóhann Jóhannson’s score, a fanfare of deep roaring horns.
The film’s most urgent idea, finally, is that understanding is a unifying, redeeming force: the populations of the world, and the military forces of several nations, including the U.S., all lose their cool and assume the default position that the visiting ships are hostile. It’s only a university lecturer who saves the day. It’s an appealing idea that, in the face of universal paranoid rage, rational-thinking, empathetic intellectual liberals would hold the line for sanity. This week’s events, alas, show that things don’t work that way.