Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
(Cover image taken from the official trailer.)
I have never written a movie review before, so have some patience while I get my bearings. Also, I clearly can’t say much without spoilers, so be warned.
The premise of Arrival intrigued me as soon as I heard it: a science-fiction alien story centered, not on warfare, but on language. Instead of a soldier, the protagonist is a linguist; and instead of defeating aliens she needs to understand them.
After a touching yet cryptic opening sequence—whose relation to the story isn’t revealed until much later—the movie begins with another day in the life of Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics. She walks into a lecture hall, one of those stale and lifeless theaters of knowledge, in order to give a class on the Romance languages—specifically, on why Portuguese sounds so different from the other languages. (She never explains this, which is frustrating, since I genuinely want to know!)
Something is clearly wrong, however, as few students are in class, and their phones keep beeping. The aliens have just arrived, and everybody all the world over is in a panic. The confusion and alarm that would accompany the appearance of genuine UFOs was portrayed with subtlety and realism. People are rushing home (but why would home be any safer?), the military is scrambling jets (in a show of force?), and the newscasters are droning on incessantly in their foux-knowledgeable voices, filling up airtime with their lack of information.
We see snatches of Banks’s life here, which give us a taste of her personality. She is a loner, somewhat cold, very quiet. We see her lakeside house—angular, empty, tranquil, and almost sterile. It needn’t even be said that she is single and lives alone. Snatches of a phone call with her mom further characterize her—she is calm, detached, and impatient of folly.
Then, as in any hero’s journey, comes the call to adventure, this time in the form of Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker, who gives his colonel a strong Boston accent). The Colonel dramatically puts a device on the table, and plays a chilling recording; it is an unintelligible series of clicks, whooshes, and moans, obviously not human. Can she translate it?
The call to adventure is at first refused (she can’t translate from a recording), and then accepted (as it must be for the movie), and soon enough Banks is snatched away to begin her quest. Next we are shown our first vision of the UFO: it is an oblong black egg that hovers ominously over the landscape, as pitifully small fighter jets fly by. The soundtrack, written by Jóhann Jóhannson, really shines in this sequence. Unearthly wailing sounds, reminiscent of alien speech, swell in and out over a droning base as the helicopters approach the monolithic object.
We also meet the other protagonist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who will work with Banks. The two of them soon begin their task.
The alien spacecraft opens up a hatch every 18 hours, giving the humans a two-hour window to go inside and make contact. (The reason for this pattern is never explained.) I particularly liked the portrayal of the huge number of precautions that the military takes when going inside the UFO. Even though no form of radiation, bacteria, or anything else potentially hazardous is detected, they must receive numerous booster shots, wear hazmat suits with heavy air purifiers, and be decontaminated each time they return.
Finally they go inside. Watching Donnelly’s childlike joy at touching the spacecraft is moving; for all he knows, he’s in a highly dangerous situation, and yet he is like a seven-year old at a zoo. I think his character is at least partially inspired by Carl Sagan, the alien-obsessed physicist. Like Sagan, Donnelly wants to communicate with the aliens through math, supposedly the universal language; and yet he soon must play second-fiddle to the linguist.
The inside of the ship is a large empty black chamber, composed of perfectly right angles. On the far end of the chamber is a transparent screen flooded with white light, through which the aliens appear. At first it is difficult to see them, because their side of the chamber is full of black smoke (part of the atmosphere they breathe?), and their form is only revealed gradually. I can’t say I was totally impressed by the design of the aliens. They are called “heptopods,” due to their having seven appendages and seven digits on each appendage; but they basically look like big, black, lumpy squids.
Thus begins the quest to communicate with the heptopods, which is the main drama of the movie. The government needs to ask them why they arrived on earth; and this requires quite a bit of linguistic prep work, since not only do our heroes need to make the question intelligible, but enough vocabulary is needed to make the answer meaningful. As far as I know, putting translation in the center of an alien movie is unique. In Independence Day (1996), for example—which I watched obsessively as a kid—the attempt to communicate with the giant UFOs lasts about three seconds. (They fly a helicopter near the alien craft to flash lights as a way of making contact; a laser blast promptly destroys the helicopter.)
Banks quickly realizes that verbal communication is a non-starter, since human vocal chords can’t reproduce heptopod speech. So she opts for written communication, and soon discovers that the heptopods have their own written language. This language is quite different from our own. It does not correspond with what the heptopods “say”; it is not, in other words, a transcription of speech. This means that the meaning is not sequenced in time.
Like a sentence in any other language, an English sentence has a front end and a back end, and must be read in the correct order to make proper sense. When we speak, we obviously must start at some time and end later; and so do our written sentences. Not so the heptopod system, wherein meaning is encoded, as it were, directly, with reference purely to ideas. It has the same meaning forward and backwards; and its meaning can be understood at a glance, like a picture.
Its easy to see how simple nouns and verbs—lions, helicopters, walking, giving—could be represented this way; but it is difficult for me to imagine how complex logical relationships or temporal sequences could be transcribed so that the message is the same forwards and backwards. The movie does not get into the mechanics of the language, however, which is just as well.
While I’m at it, I also wonder if linguistic communication would be possible at all with creatures from another planet. Wittgenstein famously said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”—meaning, I think, that our language is so tied up in our human experience of the world that it could never serve as a bridge across different species. Put another way, Wittgenstein thought that our language does not and cannot refer to pure ideas—notions that would be the same as understood by any creature.
Our experience of the world is so filtered through our senses, our biology, our specifically human brains, that it seems to me that an alien—from a planet with a vastly different ecosystem, breathing different atmosphere, with senses adapted to different conditions and a nervous systems built on entirely different principals—might conceptualize the world in such different terms that any real communication would be nearly impossible. All this is a massive digression, of course. But a movie that can prompt such ponderings is certainly worth watching.
Soon enough, Banks is coming to grips with the heptopod written language. The visual design of this language is excellent: it is written in inky smoke, and takes the form of a circular swirl with complex bulges and branches. Meanwhile, Banks is beginning to have strange visions, all featuring an unidentified little girl—the same girl from the opening sequence. It is clear that Banks is her mother; and these can’t be memories, since Banks has never had children. Is Banks cracking from sleep deprivation?
While Banks is working on the translation, the world situation is growing ever-more tense. There are twelve of these “shells” (as they’re called), and each country is taking a different approach to communicating with the heptopods. People everywhere are panicking. An image of one of the creatures is leaked and goes viral. China in particular is full of military bluster, and seems constantly on the verge of attacking their shell; and the longer the situation persists, the more people seem to think that the wise thing to do is take military action.
This brings us to one of the movie’s major themes: confronting the unknown. The only thing threatening about the shells is that they are mysterious. Who are the aliens? Where did they come from? What do they want? They don’t attack; they don’t cause any damage; they just hover above the landscape. And yet, the mere presence of unknown visitors causes riots, protests, looting, cult suicides—total panic. It almost seems as if people would prefer that the aliens demonstrated some malicious intent; at least then they’d know what to do. In this situation of total ambiguity, people’s fears fill up the vacuum of knowledge. Never mind that the aliens likely have technology far in advance of humans. We have the urge to attack, not because it’s wise, but to end this terrifying doubt.
What should you do when you confront the unknown? Understand it, or destroy it? This is the movie’s essential question. Banks represents the first solution. The main drama of the movie takes place in the shell’s chamber. There, the confrontation is given stark visual form: Banks stands and stares straight into the blinding light at the other end. The aliens are literally unreachable, separated by a partition. They communicate by imposing form onto nebulous clouds. Language is the tool through which Banks and the heptopods bridge the gap that separates them from one another.
Captain Marks, who works with Banks and Donnelly, represents the other solution. We see him listening to conservative talk radio—an obvious parody of Rush Limbaugh—whose host castigates the Army for not having enough guns, and recommends a “shot across the bow” as a demonstration of human military might. This is probably the movie’s wryest cultural comment, the tendency of the right to use blustering and macho rhetoric, even in highly delicate and complex situations. Captain Marks, spooked by this and also by his wife’s fears, decides to go rogue and attack the ships. His attack fails to accomplish anything, however, and only results in his own death (or imprisonment?) and makes Banks’s job that much more difficult.
Another major theme of the movie is our inability to work together, even in the direst of circumstances. Although it is obviously within each country’s best interest to share their data and collaborate—a “non-zero sum game,” to quote the movie—communication ultimately breaks down between nations as suspicion and paranoia take hold.
As Banks repeatedly shows, communication requires trust, which is exactly why she is so skilled at it. Instead of being scared of contamination and frightened of approaching the heptopods, she removes her protective suit and puts her hand on the glass. In other words, she chooses to trust the heptopods. Communication breaks down between the nations of the world precisely because of this lack of trust; they are afraid that the aliens are trying to get them to attack one another.
Full crisis mode ensues when Banks finally asks what the aliens are doing on earth, and gets the response “Offer Weapon.” Thus begins the dramatic final sequence, during which Banks has to rush to interpret this message before other nations of the world begin bombing their shells. After a final visit to the shell, the heptopods explain to Banks that the “weapon” is their own language, which, because it is the same forwards and backwards, allows you to see the future when you learn it. They are offering it to humanity because they will need humanity’s help in 3,000 years (which they know because they can see the future).
By the way, the idea that learning a non-temporal language could so fundamentally alter your perception of time, allowing you to see into the future, is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, otherwise known as linguistic relativity. This is a real theory, put forward in the 1950s, which argued that your language fundamentally shapes your perception of the world. The most famous (and also most infamously incorrect) example of this are supposedly huge number of words for “snow” among the Inuit, reportedly allowing them to see fine differences in different types of snow. Strong versions of this hypothesis—in which one’s language totally shapes your cognitive processes—have been ruled out; but it is true, I believe, that our language influences our thought in manifold subtle ways.
Banks, now aware of her new ability, looks into the future in order to see how she can prevent the impending catastrophe, and stop the Chinese from attacking their shell. Like all time travel, this presents some interesting paradoxes of causality. Can knowledge of the future, already determined by the present, influence the present? If the only reason that Banks could obtain the information she needed was because she had already used it, what causes what? This paradox is sort of glossed over, and that’s fine by me.
The crisis resolved, the heptopods mysteriously vanish—having accomplished their goal of uniting the peoples of the world and teaching humanity their language—and Banks is left to live her life. This leads, predictably, to a romantic entanglement with physicist Ian Donnelly. He is the man with whom Banks has her daughter, an adorable little girl who is fated to die from a “really rare disease” sometime in her adolescence.
This brings us to the movie’s second major theme: confronting the known. Because she can see the future, Banks is forced to live her life with full awareness of how everything will turn out. Her marriage to Donnelly will end in divorce, and her daughter will die young. Indeed, Donnelly wants a divorce precisely because he thinks they shouldn’t have had a daughter if Banks knew she would die.
The odd fact is that total knowledge is, in a way, far more terrifying than total mystery. It is one thing to try something when you’re not sure you’ll succeed, but it requires even more courage to try something even when you know you will fail. And yet, Banks embraces her fate, and lives her life anyway. This is the most literal illustration of Nietzsche’s amor fati, love of fate, that I’ve ever seen: instead of trying to change anything, Banks tries to appreciate each moment for what it is.
As far as acting goes, the standout performance is Amy Adams’s. Her portayal of Banks is subtle and sensitive. Banks is quiet without being timid, highly observant but fiercely independent, and incredibly strong without being overpowering. She speaks in a soft voice, nearly a whisper, and her face is usually deadpan calm. And yet this makes the emotional moments of the film that much more touching.
I am glad that such a thoughtful, tasteful movie is finding both commercial and critical success nowadays. While arguably somewhat derivative of Kubrick’s work—the visuals and sound-effects were polished and excellent, but hardly groundbreaking—Arrival manages to ask many deep questions within a gripping and accessible plot. All in all, a truly excellent film.
Directed by Denis Villenueve
Written by Eric Heisserer
Staring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker