I didn’t read any reviews about Arrival (except this one) before I went to see it at theaters today. So, all I knew about the film was that there were aliens and something about scientists trying to communicate with them (which, if you think about it, they do in almost all films involving aliens).
What I wasn’t expecting, then, were lessons in the construction of language, the importance of clarity and perhaps something about not losing faith entirely in humanity.
Spoilers may follow, so be warned.
The general plot for Arrival plays out initially as a “aliens are coming to Earth oh noes” story, but instead of just throwing the military at the problem, two scientists–linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical astrophysicist Ian Donnelly. (Jeremy Renner)–are also sent to find out what the aliens–who are seven-legged squidlike creatures known as Heptapods– want, and what their purpose is. However, the American contact with the aliens is only one of twelve occurrences around the globe, and ultimately the message that the aliens send entails that the nations at the twelve landing sites must work together for the good of humanity.
Unsurprisingly, humanity responds almost exactly as one would expect when confronted with something new, and therefore potentially threatening. There are moments when cooperation and understanding really does seem like a tall ask, as states that historically have isolationist policies move to play those out as they try to race to figure out what’s going on. Are the Heptapods giving us a weapon, or using a weapon against us? How do we know what they mean?
There’s also an interesting story arc about Louise and her daughter, told in a series of recollections, but more on that later.
Overall, I really enjoyed Arrival. From a cinematic perspective, the pacing and deliberate but subtle tension throughout the film is tenable as we unravel whether the Heptapods are friends or foes. It’s also measured, raises some interesting questions, and provokes introspection as to how we communicate and understand each other.
This movie also singlehandedly makes linguistics hella cool. Understanding language is central to Arrival; the Heptapods’ written language is constructed from a collection of semantic symbols, but which convey an entire sentence or sentiment when collectively taken together. For humans to be able to understand–that is, truly understand–what the Heptapods meant, they had to put aside their preconceived notions of the world.
Interestingly, although they are clearly intelligent and articulate themselves with concepts rather than sentences, the Heptapods don’t seem to take an active interest in understanding human language in the same way. There’s one scene where I was hoping that they would say “LOOK BEHIND YOU” and spell that out in English to show some sort of reciprocal understanding of our language, but oh well.
Arrival does have a few flaws though: despite having an amazing, strong female protagonist, there are very few other women in the film. It technically passes the Bechdel test though, given Louise’s relationship with her daughter, although that arc isn’t integral to the story as much as it’s an instance of what the Heptapods illustrate.
I wasn’t a fan of the last 30 minutes of the film either: although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Arrival is derivative of Interstellar, it does fall into the whole “let’s reconsider our concept of time” deus ex machina trope pretty hard. Also, the concept of time the story does want to examine turns out to be some sort of soft determinism, which also runs into issues of logical consistency that I won’t examine here but. Further, the (human) antagonist in the film is a person of color, and Amy Adams has a pretty bad Chinese accent.
However, I don’t think these issues diminish the overall message that Arrival tries to send. Even with these small moments of eye-twitching irritation, Arrival challenges us to be careful with our words and to be charitable in our interpretations of others’ intentions. And that, I think, is a message that we could use now more than ever.