Spoilers for the movie Arrival ahead. You’ve been warned.
There’s a dearth of intelligent science fiction in cinema. This doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of science fiction cinema with some clever ideas. We’re always going to be saturated with stories of interstellar battles and weird-looking aliens (such as Luc Besson’s adaptation of Valerian and Laureline, which I am stoked for). However, there is a distinct lack of films that use a science fiction or fantastical element to explore aspects of humanity, films that call for a blend of style and substance rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Thankfully, this is what I got with Denis Villenveuve’s Arrival, a slow-burn sci-fi thriller adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The film follows a translator who’s been hired by the government to try and communicate with a race of aliens found on one of twelve huge space ships that have landed on Earth for whatever reason. As she discovers their written language and begins to translate it into English, she finds herself bombarded with visions of a possible future involving her unborn daughter, and she realizes that learning this language is rewiring her brain and allowing her to perceive time in a nonlinear way. This comes in handy when she finds herself having to use this ability in order to prevent the aliens from being destroyed by impatient warmongers abroad and on the home front.
What I just wrote was the plot of the film, mind; not what Arrival is about. Let’s go into that here.
See, Villenveuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer understand that you can write stories about monsters and space ships all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything if there’s no heart, soul, or functioning brain behind it. Top-tier science fiction, like all good media, puts a mirror in front of its audience and shows us how ugly and beautiful we are. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain explores our fear of death; Spike Jonze’s Her asks us why we form relationships; Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca and In Time explored classism through two different lenses; and now we have Arrival to talk to us about the power of the human mind.
Oh, sure, the film itself talks a big game about the nature of time and how language works and how a guns-and-glory attitude is little more than a lack of self-control made manifest. If anything, though, it’s more of a pseudo-Lovecraftian story about our ability to process impossible things.
In addition to being known for gross racist tirades, horror author H.P. Lovecraft was notorious for fiction that pitted against the unknown, telling stories about good and inquisitive folk coming across something difficult or impossible to comprehend and being driven mad by what they saw. Arrival kicks that idea square in the head. This is demonstrated when Amy Adams’ character Louise Banks first boards the alien vessel and is treated to the strange adjustments in gravity. In this scene, the hallway she arrives in starts to zoom out or in, and shift as is to impart onto the viewers the vertigo she’s feeling. We also see this with the long and dizzying shots of the alien ship on our first approach to it, or when Louise starts to study their language and it begins to affect her mind.
What’s important about the strangeness of the aliens and their technology is that we become adjusted to them. After the initial encounters, the tricky camerawork and angles take a backseat so that we anticipate the aliens and their language and the shifts in gravity, just as Louise does. Yes, we will encounter strange things, but we must grow accustomed to that and face it head on, understanding bizarre things on their own bizarre terms. This is especially important because this idea ties into the film’s more overt theme of language.
Language is complex, an alien entity in of itself, and all individual languages contain certain words or concepts that are unique to each language set and society. Here are some examples: the Spanish verb estrenar refers to wearing an article of clothing for the first time; verbs in Vietnamese don’t conjugate, and so tenses must be expressed contextually; and there’s a Japanese expression for when a man flirts with two different women at the same time that translates to “having flowers in both hands.”
It doesn’t end with mere vocabulary. To the average person, English sentences, Chinese characters, Nordic runes, and Urdu script all look like they were scribbled down by someone completely bonkers. Yet, when you actually sit down and force yourself to speak, read, and write in that language, you start to understand its nuances and turns of phrase, and how the speakers of that language may or may not think, and your own way of thinking actually evolves in order to understand it.
Really, this is what the film is trying to tell us; not that language is cool or that time is convoluted, but that seemingly-impossible things only seem impossible because we do not understand them. It’s a film that rewards the inquisitive, that tells its audience to ask questions, no matter how ludicrous, in order to gain a better understanding of the world at large. It tells us that exploring unfamiliar territory and making an effort to learn something new is its own reward. Arrival encourages risk and critical thinking, saying that learning and thereby knowing something you thought was unknowable makes you stronger and better.
Rather than posit that flying too close to the sun will burn you alive, Arrival encourages its audience to build a ship powerful enough to fly right into that fat orange bastard and pop a sick wheelie across its burning surface.
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