Good science fiction involves ordinary people responding to extraordinary situations. It’s easy to forget that today, especially in a world where CGI explosions, hostile alien invasions and Amazonian babes are dominating the genre. Fortunately, this is not the case for Arrival, an ambitiously rare film brimming with cerebral puzzles and curious insights. For director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival is an achievement in filmmaking and a movie that tactfully places language at its core and nuance at its forefront.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a skilled linguistics professor who is teaching class when 12 oval-shaped alien structures arrive on earth. The aliens, who are later referred to as heptapods, have made no attempts at violence. Rather, they open the doors to their obsidian space-crafts every 18 hours to engage with the humans. They speak in low snarls and deep bellows, and Banks is given the near impossible task of translating their language. She quickly learns that they mostly communicate in the form of written language, through complex inky circles emitted from their tentacles. Together, she and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) must decipher the aliens’ language and determine their purpose before military groups unleash their nuclear arsenals and risk Armageddon.
It’s a big plot, and Arrival could have easily collapsed under the enormity of its own story. Somehow it doesn’t, a feat that can be largely attributed to Adams’ incredible performance. While Banks is a linguistic genius with an evident interest in her subject matter, she is also a complicated human with an aching past. When communicating with the heptapods, Adams effortlessly juggles feelings of fear, wariness and fascination. Through her eyes, Arrival is able to maintain its vast scope while simultaneously keeping its focus palpable.
Arrival briefly touches on the Saphir-Worf Hypothesis, a linguistic theory arguing that language itself can affect the way we perceive reality. For example, unlike the English language, which has individual syllables that correspond to sounds, the Chinese language uses symbols that stand for different words or concepts. According to linguistic determinism, these differences might alter the way we see the world. As Banks’ understanding of the heptopod language increases, her perceptions of reality also begin to change. This is an extreme interpretation of Saphir Worf, but the idea does make for interesting sci-fi. More importantly, it is likely to make audiences interested in language.
Up-and-coming cinematographer Bradford Young beautifully shoots the film in soft grey light. He also maneuvers through Arrival’s flashbacks with remarkable precision. As a result, the flashbacks feel familiar and smooth, adding emotional depth to Arrival.
But are they flashbacks really? We have been taught to think so because of our logical interpretation of film structure. Arrival turns this idea on itself, cleverly piecing together its scenes in a way that parallels its own understanding of composition and form. It is a feat of cinematic architecture, a true triumph in non-linear storytelling.
Arrival shows how interesting science fiction can be when its focus is on ideas rather than effects. It can challenge us, intrigue us and even prompt hours of speculation and debate. Beneath the web of palindromes and paradoxes, Arrival speaks volumes toward a global disconnect. In other words, how should we approach situations that are foreign to us?
For Banks, it is removing her body suit and nearing the foggy barrier despite her uncertainty. Ultimately, it is her vulnerability that is the key to deciphering their language. Arrival encourages us to do the same. It invites us to abandon preconceived notions about structure and righteousness, to open our minds to new perspectives and perhaps even new solutions.