Dennis Villeneuve, director of twisty and somber movies like Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), and Sicario (2015), winningly adapts Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella “Story of Your Life” into the thoughtful, intimate and elegant Arrival (2016).
Meet world-renowned linguist Louise Banks, who in the film’s opening sequence shares with us tender memories of her daughter’s infancy and death to cancer as a teen. Next, enter twelve alien vessels that touch down on twelve different parts of the planet and open up at regular intervals, inviting first contact with humans. Louise and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly are selected by the U.S. military to try to crack the aliens’ language and answer two fundamental questions: where are they from, and what do they want? As these efforts to break the communication gap seem to stall, worldwide tensions escalate and various superpowers threaten war, cutting everyone off from their alien-related findings. Will Louise and Ian succeed in their mission, possibly availing humanity of unimaginably powerful technology, or will their failure trigger a catastrophic world conflict?
There’s a unique sense of elation that accompanies unreservedly recommending a science fiction film: a rare and fine feeling indeed to say, “This is good,” and not append caveats. Such is my privilege at the present. Arrival is an expertly realized fusion of high-concept science fiction and arresting character drama. And at a more basic level, it’s also pretty.
When Villeneuve was promoting Sicario, he talked about his film-making process and how for him there’s a “necessary time to dream enough about the film” before jumping into the actual making of it. He also revealed his longstanding desire to tackle the fantastic: “I was dreaming, since I’m ten years old, to do sci-fi.” Arrival is, in this sense, the culmination of these two dreams, one embedded within the other. One gets the sense that Villeneuve not only inspired his cast and crew, but gave them the space necessary to fashion lovely and complementary performances: from Bradford Young’s accomplished, somewhat etheral cinematography, to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s strikingly otherwordly use of vocal loops in his soundtrack, to the riveting visuals of the various special effects teams, and of course splendid work by Amy Adams as Louise, as well as strong supporting turns by Jeremy Renner as Ian, Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, and Tzi Ma as General Shang.
I’ve seen reviews that discuss Arrival in the context of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or the more recent Interstellar (2014). Particles of such films drift here, but Arrival is its own creative entity, perhaps momentarily inspired but never beholden to these and or other entries in the woefully under-populated genre of Thoughtful Science Fiction Movie. Despite its often sobering tone, Arrival is warmer and more porous than the cosmically chilly 2001; easier to enter, but finally just as ambitious in its conceptual sweep. Alien motivations for first contact in movies tend to be reduced to loudly hostile or quietly nefarious, with the occasional cease-and-desist thrown in for good measure, but Arrival offers an intellectually intriguing alternative. And while Interstellar excelled at black holes and relativity theory, its heart appeared to have been uneasily soldered atop its vast and sleek vehicle of physics and then feverishly over-pumped by the script writers to make sure we didn’t lose sight of it. Contact (1997) is perhaps a little closer overall, though more commercial in its sensibility and pacing, and let down, many felt, by an underwhelming finale. Loss, longing, loneliness, resilience, hope, a celebration of beauty and an almost transcendental acceptance of what is all emerge naturally from Arrival’s story, which has the added virtue of not trying to answer all the questions it raises.
I’ve been talking about the movie in general terms because any major discussion of its ideas will give away plot essentials. Suffice it to say, Arrival reveals a film-maker at the peak of his powers, one whose immersion in and commitment to his source material is evident each step of the way. I can’t wait for Blade Runner 2049.
Arrival’s aliens, the Heptapods, are a remarkable creation. At first their seven limbs and starfish-like terminations may appear a merely visual conceit, but they provide a clue as to their unique perception of time by suggesting complete rotational symmetry. The alteration of gravitational flow upon entering the Shell’s central corridor also neatly foreshadows the revelations to come, again suggesting a non-privileged frame of reference for spatial displacements. And of course their written language leads us directly to some of the movie’s most stimulating concepts.
In a way, a first contact scenario is a bit like a detective story, positing obligatory questions about means and motive. Unlike detective narratives, though, where the principal pleasure often derives from the mystery’s investigation rather than its climactic resolution, Arrival’s answers provide as much of a conceptual thrill as the characters’ experiences on their way to those answers. One such key notion is that the Heptapods possess two languages, one based on sounds and one on symbols, but that these two languages are “not isomorphic” to one another. The visual language denotes extreme symmetry, eventually suggesting a-temporality. The ability for language to radically reshape one’s perceptions of the world (the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis,” referenced in the movie) has been mined by imaginative writers for some time in print, with memorable examples in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes (1971), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” (1983), Shane Tourtellotte’s “Finding a Voice” (1999), Ted Chiang’s own “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), Sheila Finch’s The Guild of Xenolinguists (2007), China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011) and Yoon Ha Lee’s recent Ninefox Gambit (2016), but this is the first time I’ve seen it centrally depicted on the big screen. And what a riveting presentation it is. The language in question here is a “tool” that provides humans with non-linear access to time, erasing the distinctions between past and future. And why grant humans with this ability? Refreshingly, the Heptapods are motivated by enlightened self-interest, and even more refreshingly, they are transparent about their reasons: three thousand years in the future, they will need humanity’s help. Talk about a non-zero-sum game.
This is revealed in the film during a critical intensifying of political tensions around the globe, and logically speaking, audiences should sigh with relief at the Heptapods’ revelation, since it means that humanity will get past the current crisis and, we infer, substantially evolve its technology in the future. But the audience I was with didn't show any signs of consolation by this future knowledge, probably because it was almost too bizarre to process, and because they were too invested in Louise’s personal plight to regard such abstract matters. Some viewers may feel deliberately misled by first seeing Louise’s loss and only later grasping that the loss, now in our collective past as an audience, is based on Louise’s memories of the future. But I think this is one of the film’s narrative strengths, because it forces us to undergo the same disorientation inherent in non-linear time as she does. Our film-going experience precisely mirrors hers. Roger Ebert famously said that films are machines for generating empathy, and Arrival’s astutely (but chronologically logical) non-linear narrative does exactly that. In a loose way, Heptapod B and its transformative effect on Louise made me think of the “empathy virus” in Code 46 (2003), a stylish but less rigorous and satisfying exploration of humanity’s evolution in the near future.
I mentioned before that the film leaves questions open. While Louise deliberately opts to act in such a way that her memories of the future will come true, does she have a choice? If she decided, for instance, to never have a child, would her future memories be rewritten into a new set of future memories, now aligned with her new future? Or might she be, despite her best intentions, unable to escape the trajectory that she’s on, all choices eventually leading to the same place? Give her free will, and the solidity of her future memories is undermined; ensure her memories are accurate, and you remove her agency. But it doesn’t seem both would be possible at the same time—so which is it? Wisely, the film doesn’t enter this thorny free-will-vs.-determinism debate, not committing to either side.
Michel Foucault once said: “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end.” Louise’s actions seem to express disagreement with Foucault’s position. But again, that depends on whether she truly knows what is to come or is free to change it at will, doesn’t it? And if her memories of the future are as imperfect as our regular memories of the past, maybe it’s not enough knowledge to change her decisions anyhow.
Another conundrum is the a-causal generation of information in Louise’s brain. She learns of General Shang’s cell phone number in the future and uses that knowledge in the present to contact him; but the only reason she learns of it in the future is because the event happened in the past and he is recollecting it to her. We become caught in an ouroboros loop where her knowledge of the phone number has no cause: it exists in the future because she possessed it in the past, but she only possessed it in the past because it existed in the future. Again, the film wisely stays out of the weeds on these matters.
Philosophically, perhaps the only sentiment that struck a false note with me was the idea that our mortality in some way defines us. Not only do I find this argument unconvincing, but also tritely sentimental, unlike the rest of the film’s polished script.
When my girlfriend and I left the movie theater, she asked me if I’d read Ted Chiang’s source story. I thought that I had, but wasn’t quite sure. Was I remembering reading Chiang’s novella in the future, say next week? Perhaps a story about language stimulating non-linear awareness of time is itself enough to flicker it into being? Watch this excellently crafted, deeply thought-provoking film and find out for yourself.