Twelve mysterious spaceships arrive on earth – who should we send as a spokesperson for the human race? In Arrival (2016), the answer is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams); a linguistics expert suffering from the heart-breaking loss of her daughter. Expecting space travel and first encounters of the third kind to be central in this Hollywood adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story (Story of Your Life, 1998), it was refreshing to find that the beating heart of this film was actually a focus on semantics and the relationship between language, physics, and time.
Amy Adams plays a professor of comparative linguistics, whom Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits to decipher why the aliens (or ‘heptopods’) are on earth. The entirety of her investigation can be defined by the simple question: ‘why are they here’? In order to find the answer, Louise must try to explain the meaning of ‘purpose’ to the aliens – a task which not only entails comprehending each other’s vernacular, but also the epistemological apparatus behind it. Ultimately, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly’s (Jeremy Renner) scientific approach proves insufficient, and it is Louise’s linguistic knowledge, human empathy, vulnerability, and patience that actually tie all the strings together.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) showcases his masterful storytelling ability as the film successfully combines the calamity that the aliens bring to international affairs as leaders dispute the best way to protect humanity, and the existential questions the aliens pose about what makes us truly human. The cinematography compliments the gripping, stoical tangent of the story arc by creating a compelling ambiance which oscillates from gloomy and tense, to exceedingly light, dream-like states. Villeneuve credits this to the ‘dirty sci-fi’ quality of the movie: “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning… like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you’d dream while looking [out the window]”.
In addition, the musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson enriches the film’s intrigue and eccentric beauty with his arrangement of vocals and evocative experimental sound, proving him to be one of the most exciting composers working in film at the moment.
Arrival celebrates “the mystery of life” which Villeneuve found so inspirational in Chiang’s short story. The film weaves past, present and future seamlessly, faithfully mirroring the alloy of tenses in Chiang’s story, which parallels the aliens’ non-linear concept of time where past, present, and future can be perceived in a singular moment. The film also beautifully incorporates a central theory in Chiang’s story; the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which believes that language has a tangible affect on the cognition and wiring of the brain. However, the determinism in Chiang’s original ending where Louise is deprived of freedom in her final choice, is left ambiguous in the film. At this stage, Louise is able to interpret time like the aliens; one founded on ‘Fermat’s Principle of Least Time’, where one can theoretically determine the end at the beginning. Put in this situation of knowing the teleological end of her daughter’s story – Louise’s ultimate decision is suspended of free will, an idea that the film chooses to leave ambivalent rather than assert. Nonetheless, Arrival fully embraces the scientific credentials of Chiang’s original story, creating a pace that for the sci-fi thriller genre, is unrushed, perspicacious, and truly hopeful.
Amy Adams’s performance as Louise Banks was particularly well realised. She creates an arresting presence as a female lead whose strength is not manifest in an outspoken obstinacy, but in the humble and calculating way she searches for answers. Rather than being an identifiable character for the audience, she is uniquely admirable figure of authority who endures the grief of her daughter’s loss while remaining strong in her effort to understand the aliens’ purpose. Just like the narrator in Chiang’s story, Louise provides the voice of a parental figure, and consequently the film develops a strangely emotional attachment between Louise and the audience.
Peter Bradshaw rightly describes the film as a “movie which jumps up on its high-concept highwire and disdains a net.” It is not only an ambitious film for creating an exquisite visual experience on a budget lower than Interstellar, but also for the variety of themes it processes in a mature, poetic, and cine-literate way. It is true that Arrival is a conceptual work and in order to fully enjoy the film, one has to forgive its scientific oddities such as how the aliens managed to replicate the Earth’s mass, given the artificial gravity in the spaceship. Instead, Villeneuve’s focus for the film seems to be the immensely relevant theme of global crisis which the invasion brings, as nations disagree over the motives of the aliens and how best to protect humanity. The species mentality between ‘us’ against ‘them’ predominant in apocalyptic first encounter films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still is absent – rather, conflicting human interests cause individuals to turn against each other in the crossfire of misunderstandings. In contrast, Louise’s moving role shows that the ability to hope and preserve life should be the goal of language. What we learn is that without communication and understanding, the real threat to humanity is not what may come hurtling at our planet from outer space but being disconnected from each other, a message that is poignant in our world today.
Arrival shows its brilliance by presenting a fresh perspective about our reality in a sumptuously intelligent light. It tackles those questions we privately ask ourselves; in a time of international dissolution, how can we preserve our wonder at the world? Bring children up into a war and disease-rife environment? Or even audaciously hope to better the situation? Arrival answers these questions with piercing clarity, in a cinematic ode to humanity.