I’ve written previously about the importance of original science fiction films. In this age of franchises, sequels, and reboots, the genre is under increasing threat from stagnation as studios prefer to recycle profitable ideas from the past, rather than gambling on new concepts. It paints a depressing image of the future – a world where nostalgia is a commodity and pop culture is an endless regurgitation of the past. But then you get movies like Arrival, and my faith in Hollywood is somewhat restored.
Arrival is one of those rare films that combines science and speculation to answer the big questions – in this case, about our ability to communicate. It is intelligent. It is philosophical. It is tragic. It challenges the way we perceive reality. And in a month that has been rocked by political bombshells, its message about open communication and helping each other is perhaps the most timely element of all.
The film begins as twelve alien spacecraft arrive at various points across the globe. Teams of scientists begin communicating with the aliens (the “heptapods”), trying to learn their language and understand why they are here. When one of their messages is loosely translated into “offer weapon,” various governments believe that the aliens pose a threat and begin preparations for war. Yet linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are convinced that the aliens are here on a mission of peace.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film is based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life.” I read Chiang’s story a few years ago and it left an indelible impression on my mind. (It’s also one of the most decorated and anthologized stories in recent memory: it won the 2000 Nebula Award for best novella, and is featured in three separate anthologies in my collection alone.) Despite being about the difficulty of communicating with aliens, the story has a very human heart – it is about the joys and sorrows of family. When I heard that it was being turned into a movie, I worried that Hollywood would lose sight of what made the story so special. But they haven’t. The opening scenes of the film follow Louise as she loses her young daughter to cancer; this tragedy sets the tone for the rest of the film. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver nuanced performances, conveying the uncertainty, fear, and sense of wonder that carries the film. Most importantly, Villeneuve has remained true to Chiang’s message. A film about our first contact with aliens is more about our inability to communicate with each other.
It is fitting that the two protagonists are a linguist and a physicist, because the film offers speculations in both fields. The linguistic theories are patiently explained to the other characters – and the audience – by Louise. It offers a look at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, suggesting our language shapes our perception of reality. Learning a new language thus becomes a new way of experiencing the world. As Louise learns the heptapods’ language, her brain is rewired so that she can perceive the world in the same way that they do.
The film also presents a fairly sophisticated understanding of time. Humans perceive time as a linear progression, moving from one moment to the next. Yet the heptapods perceive time outside of a linear model – they can see every moment of their lives simultaneously. This worldview is reflected in their written language – beautiful circular symbols that resemble coffee cup stains – in which entire sentences appear at once, rather than being written from beginning to end. The combination of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and this depiction of time leads to an important revelation that transforms the events of the film.
The aliens are handled with a subtlety that is rare in modern Hollywood. Our first glimpse of one of their ships is breathtakingly beautiful, with mist pouring down from a nearby mountainside, creating an eerie landscape. It is accompanied by discordant musical tones that are reminiscent of something from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The heptapods themselves are grotesque, Lovecraftian creations. Most of our glimpses of them are through a dense fog that is part of their habitat, an ethereal atmosphere that adds to their otherworldliness. When Louise and Ian head into the alien ship for the first time, the sense of apprehension is heightened by our fear of the unknown, tainted (perhaps) by a long cinematic tradition of first contact scenarios ending in violence.
Arrival fits into a long tradition of first contact films, without feeling too derivative. Strong parallels can be drawn to films such as Contact (1997), Interstellar (2014), or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And, like those films, Arrival maintains an optimistic view about humanity – not just in our future among the stars, but in our basic way that we treat each other.
Arrival exemplifies why original science fiction is so important. It injects new ideas into the popular imagination. It turns our attention outward, to others, and makes us think about the bridges we need to build in order to create a better world.