It is more than a little unsettling to me that so many people are describing Arrival as “thinking people’s sci-fi” because of what it says about our expectations for popular media. Arrival is high-concept, but it’s not complicated or obtuse. In fact, it clearly states its thesis very early on, even declaring it to be a thesis diegetically: “Language is the foundation of civilization…it is the first weapon used in war,” and then not long after, explains its main supporting argument in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis – that the languages you know change your perception of the world.
The first part of the thesis comes from a book written by Arrival’s main character, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), America’s foremost linguist, tapped by the US military to translate the language of aliens who have landed (hovering, technically) giant black space-crafts on twelve places throughout the globe. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is brought up by Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist the military hired to work with Louise to find out why the aliens have come to Earth, and what they’re capable of.
There’s more to the plot; the twelve alien crafts are each being handled by different world powers, which means Louise and Ian are on a clock to translate the alien language before other countries like Russia and China decide to solve the problem with weapons, and a subplot involving Louise’s daughter’s terminal illness that ties into the resolution in a major way; but Arrival is a movie you want to go into as cold as possible.
Arrival is also one of the best films of the year. While not a movie just for “thinking people, Arrival is still an incredibly smart movie, or rather, it’s one that manages to expertly marry its characters, themes, and plot in ways that reinforce each-other and will continually surprise, delight, and even tug at the heartstrings. There is an undeniable craftsmanship to the movie, and while there are some questionable choices – like abridging much of the early translating of the alien language through a voiced-over montage – you can’t argue with the results. From its cinematography and design, to the acting, Arrival is completely engrossing.
Maybe most impressive, it’s one of the first movies in a long time that I feel really captured what first contact would be like. It’s depicted as a global media event, but not as a celebration. The world is in a state of anticipation and caution. Some people are scared and angry, because people are often scared and angered by the unknown. But the anticipation lends a quietness to the film, as if the entire world were holding its breath.
The alien ships are skyscraper sized, featureless, rounded monoliths, like giant black monoliths hanging in the air. They give off no noise, scent, radio waves, lights, they are distinct only in their quiet ominous presence. And then there are the aliens themselves. Dubbed Heptapods, they appear as 20ft, seven-legged charcoal hands that float squid-like behind a window in their ship, obscured by a thick mist-like atmosphere. Everything about them is treated with immensity. They are huge, their ships are huge, their landing here is huge, and in comparison we are very small.
Their language, we learn, is written in circular glyphs, simultaneously backwards and forwards, and does not correlate with their vocalizations. Unlike so many other aliens, they don’t feel like humans or animals from another planet, but like something completely, well, alien.
And while Louise and Ian are really the only two important (human) characters in the movie, this isn’t a two-hander; Amy Adams owns this film entirely. Louise exudes a quiet confidence. She is past having to prove that she’s intelligent and necessary, and almost never raises her voice. Her job is not to find out how to communicate with the aliens – she has a lesson plan already set by her second time seeing them – she just has to convince everybody else to give her time and space. She’s brave, being the first human in the movie to take off her hazmat suit and approach the aliens, completely owning the strength that her knowledge and skills of communication grant her. Like last year’s other sci-fi scholar hero, The Martian’s Mark Watney, Louise’s strength comes from understanding and rigor, a confidence in the known and knowable.
And to be fair, Renner as Ian Donnelly quickly drops the STEM-superiority act, quickly becoming a helpful and supportive colleague, more interested in Louise’s language studies than the gravity-flipping properties of the alien ships. Honestly, this is the most likable I’ve ever seen Renner in a movie.
At one of the most divisive times in this country’s history, Arrival is a movie that passionately reminds us of the power of communication. It tells us that making the effort to learn each-other’s languages doesn’t just increase our ability to work together, but increases our individual abilities to perceive the world and see greater truths. And even when there is fear and tragedy, there is always a beauty in knowing, and a gift in sharing.