Under the guise of a science fiction alien invasion thriller, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival tells an intelligent, insightful, poignant, and refreshingly optimistic story not at all about aliens, but about humanity. As the characters scramble to communicate with an alien species that has landed oblong spacecrafts all over the world, we’re made to take notice of the ways in which we communicate with each other – or, more accurately, how we often fail to communicate.
We focus not on the similarities, but the differences. We automatically assume anyone who reaches out has an ulterior motive. We prepare for the worst rather than expect the best. But the film suggests, without resorting to overt sentimentality, that there exists the capacity for change, for good, for communication. It all depends on our perception of time.
How do I clarify myself without having to result to spoilers? Let it suffice to say that, in its examination of the frailties and shortcomings but also the preciousness of humanity, the film begs the question of what we would do if we somehow knew the direction our lives are to go in. Armed with knowledge, would we continue traveling in that direction? Or would we go a different way, taking a gamble towards an uncertain outcome? Fate and free will – dualities that have baffled scientists and philosophers since time immemorial. We have very definite ideas about both. But of course, they’re based entirely on our conceptions of time and space, which even laymen like myself can tell you are very limited, given the areas of the brain we have yet to tap into.
This is one of the year’s best films. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” it’s an observant and touching portrait of how we perceive the world. In that same regard, it’s also a concerning portrait. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis poses, in a nutshell, that worldview is shaped by language. The problem is that different languages are spoken all over the world, and there’s debate over whether language determines thought or merely influences it; assuming that thought is determined, this means that different languages result in different thoughts, thoughts that are less accommodating and more combative. If, for example, you attempt to communicate with an alien race in terms of a game, you’re projecting thoughts of conflict, strategy, and victory.
At the heart of the story is linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she has been recruited by the American government to make contact with an extraterrestrial lifeform that has put twelve gigantic pod-like UFOs in various spots around the world. Her efforts, we quickly see, are infinitely more diplomatic than the actions of the government suggest; they resort to overly cautious security measures, like rinsing all incoming vehicles in a spray of water, and requiring all recruits to submit to various medical tests, and forcing all scientists that enter the pods every eighteen hours to wear hazmat suits and decontaminate upon their return.
As Banks begins the task of not only introducing herself and her kind but also of deciphering the symbols the alien creatures project in a fog of ink, we’re made to notice how the rest of the world is reacting to this close encounter. The media reports of rioting and panic, and certain countries, most notably China, view the aliens as invaders to be challenged instead of as visitors making contact. We’re also made to notice how Banks’ thoughts are dominated by visions of her daughter, shown at the beginning of the film to have died of a rare disease early in her life. The connection between her daughter and the alien creatures is not made to be obvious until the final act of the film, although there are things that can be gleaned by specific moments, as when it seems their personal communication is equally as problematic as that between us and the aliens.
My worry is that, in much the same way as Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, Arrival will be harshly criticized by general audiences expecting a space opera shoot-’em-up with lots of stunts, special effects, and pyrotechnics. It has far more ambition than that. It actually has something to say. It holds a mirror up to us. Some of what we see isn’t all that pretty. But then again, some of it is; we’re left with the sense that we have every right to be hopeful, that for all the awful things we can do, there are also some very good things we can do. We just need a little push. And maybe, just maybe, beings from another world can give it to us.