“Are you dreaming in their language?”
Today I had the opportunity to see Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Our dear old Black Humor Mage went along with me and we both walked out of the movie house satisfied. One of the best things about Arrival is it’ll come up on a Google search now instead of THE Arrival starring Charlie Sheen…
Personally, what I wanted most from Arrival was for it to be a “hard science fiction” movie. Hard sci-fi is a subgenre that’s more concerned with realism, scientific accuracy, the technical aspects of its concepts (Interstellar, The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Solaris, Moon, Ex Machina, Planet of the Apes).
“Soft sci-fi” doesn’t really encompass the polar opposite of the hard, as it generally means it’s more concerned with humanity than with science. Hard is about the natural sciences and soft about the social. Therefore, I’d consider the true opposite of hard sci-fi to be science-fantasy, the likes of which flood the market every summer. Typically, sci-fantasy are the blockbuster movies with some elements of sci-fi in them: Star Wars, The Avengers, Superman, Jupiter Ascending, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Masters of the Universe (lol).
It isn’t to say that any film that is either hard or soft sci-fi or science-fantasy will automatically be a good or bad movie, but my favorite film is 2001: a Space Odyssey. I prefer sci-fi to be driven by concepts, by ideas rather than by cheap jump scares or action heroes. So that gives you a general idea about what I wanted from Arrival. To be precise, I was almost entirely not disappointed. There’s a heavy dose of both Crichton and Kubrick here.
A brief overview of the narrative follows, so please be aware of some light SPOILERS about the structure of the film. Skip to the image below this one if you’d like to avoid them.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is an instructing linguist and single mother whose daughter has died. When twelve extraterrestrial objects appear across the globe, she is confronted by US Army Colonel Weber because of her work in translating Farsi. The Colonel plays an audio sample for her and asks her to translate. She responds she can’t make sense of the noises and whether they were made by entities within the objects. Aliens.
She is eventually whisked away by your tax dollars in action, meets physicist
Ian Malcom Ian Donnelly, and is taken to one of the extraterrestrial objects, now known to be ships which the military are calling “Shells”. The US has been in close contact with many other countries who are all trying to pool their information and experts together to figure out how to communicate with the entities inside. Ian is put in charge of the science team and wants to bring out his big guns: Fibonacci numbers and algebra. Louise thinks she can find some success in making language the first means of contact.
The first sessions are traumatizing. Louise begins to unravel the alien language and as she does, visions and dreams begin to torment her. She revisits memories of her daughter, which haunt her.
I really do not want to say much more. I appreciate how this movie made me feel and a lot of that was because I went in not knowing much about it, purposefully. Obviously I knew it was going to be a “first contact” movie. I guess Amy Adams is going to be known for those (think Man of Steel), but the awe of discovery, the revelation of the entities themselves, the mystery surrounding the whole event of the film with many unanswered questions, the atmosphere of tension and even psychological dread, the straight-forward seriousness of a movie that’s determined to accurately represent how humanity and individuals would react in such an unprecedented situation.
So much to appreciate in this film in the science fiction department. It is true that there is an element of fantasy (to my mind) that creeps in toward the end of the movie and serves as a kind of almost-Shyamalan twist of sorts. I’ll admit I felt slightly cheated by it. It seemed like sneaking in sugary gobledeegook sci-fantasy in what was otherwise a very direct hard sci-fi film, though it should be said that it was not something that ruined the movie. I’m not sure it would ruin the movie for anyone. It wasn’t hugely cheesy or so far out of left-field that you couldn’t reconcile it with anything else going on.
It still felt smart even though it’s a little bit of nonsense. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) I am of course referring to the perception of non-linear time, being able to see the future and the past in the present by learning the alien language. But they made it work and they made it as sensible as possible. So props to the writers and director for that.
The 8-bit Review
I can’t recall seeing a film by director Denis Villeneuve before this one and Black Humor told me that the director worked with a different cinematographer in Arrival (Bradford Young) than the one he’d previous used. The movie was still exceptionally beautiful. It did take me a few minutes to accept that this was going to be the kind of film to use a lot of blurry out of focus shots with things moving in and out of the foreground and background, but can I say that the cinematography doesn’t come off as so artsy it’s pretentious? Villeneuve’s a French Canadian film maker, too. The result is a product that feels tangible, real, wet with rain, cold with mud, atmospheric.
The visuals cues (see Narrative) are few and far between, never shoved down your throat or over-explained. Everything’s there. The twelve ships themselves with their half-shape appearance is a visual clue in and of itself.
Then there are the entities themselves. We have seen a lot of aliens since the inception of science fiction with the grandfathers of the genre, men like Wells, Clarke, Asimov, etc. We’ve seen a lot of bug-eyed bugs and big-headed greys, but they managed to pull of something unique. It was something Lovecraftian. Visually disturbing. Again, the revelation is key to the experience so I’ll just say that I was immensely pleased with the portrayal.
So why is the score not a ten? Well, there was actually one moment where I saw Jeremy Renner’s head suffer lag when he stood up in his CGI radiation suit. Kinda weird that made it by. Also, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the gaseous alien script looked really fake the first time it’s shown, and the textures on the beings themselves aren’t wholesale convincing. Minor details in the long run in a film that is otherwise entirely awesome.
I loved this unsettling, otherworldly soundtrack with its vocalizations that at one moment sound human and at the other sound totally alien. You can’t be sure if it’s a child singing or if it’s the moaning of a huge, unknown creature. There’s the mark of a composer here who knows how to take his time. The music is slow, sad, majestic, careful in its build up, rarely bombastic. It captures the horror of suddenly realizing you’re not alone in the universe, challenging so many previously held notions about the significance of humanity. It’s because of music like this that the (spoilers: highlight to reveal) seem terrifying even though they’re benign.
The track that plays when Louise and Ian are flown in by helicopter to the base nearby the spacecraft was instantly memorable for me. In a movie about memory and language, there were several tracks with what sounded like a foreign language, or like speech therapy patterns, such as the one which plays during the mid-movie montage.
Arrival, I was delighted to discover, was based on the novella by Ted Chiang entitled “Story of Your Life”. It’s instantly leaped onto my too-read list.
Arrival takes cues from Michael Crichton’s Sphere where the protagonist was a psychologist called in to help with trauma associated with engaging unknown entities. There’s that layer of psychological fear all over Arrival, and that is truly what a first contact movie needs to have.
I also appreciate that they didn’t “show the face of God”, as it were. They didn’t over-explain and thereby rid the movie of its mystery. By the end of the film, we understood the reason why the entities showed up but we still didn’t know much about their nature, biology, origin, technology, where they went or what they needed from us. And that’s oddly satisfying. Of course it doesn’t sate the starving maw of curiosity but it renders the aliens themselves larger than the screen can contain, because they remain larger in our minds as something not entirely explained. That’s one cure taken from 2001: a Space Odyssey.
So on to the big twist which is (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the aliens came to Earth to bring humanity a weapon, which is their written language, which when learned allows the learner to perceive time non-linearly, past, present and future, presumably as the aliens do. This is a fantastical interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, that a person’s language either determines or influences their thoughts and decisions. Fascinating stuff.
Certainly a person who thinks in Hebrew thinks differently than a person who thinks in Spanish, or a native German speaker thinks differently than one who speaks English. The misattributed quote is often given to Emperor Charles V: “I speak to God in Spanish, to women in Italian, to men in French, and to my horse in German”.
The concept that language affects our perception is fresh, but the application that learning (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the alien language gives an equation of time that affects your perception of time as non-linear and lets you see the future is a little ridiculous. When Louise sees the future, she gets the phone number for the Chinese general by getting him to show it to her at a fancy party in the future. He even tells her what his dying wife’s words were so that she can say them to him in the past-present and cause the events of the future. Presumably he too was affected by the alien language, which would explain his behavior. But that doesn’t explain how learning a language can allow you to see time as non-linear with memories of future events that in this interpretation of time are locked, or how that gift didn’t allow Louise to immediately interpret the language in the first place given her future knowledge, or how she the future she was cause could be the cause in itself. That’s fantasy.
Family Friendliness: 6/10
At its emotional core is the story of Louise losing her daughter, and it moved me. I needed to hug my baby boy when I got home. It’s heavy handed. Remember Up? There isn’t much violence in this movie and the language is limited to virtually a single F-bomb and I think that’s about it. What makes this mostly not a movie for kids (I’d guess younger than a teen) is its concepts. Good luck explaining the perception of time, the complexities of language, the nature of the entities. Plus, the movie has an aura of dread and tension about it. It’s not gratuitous but not a kids’ film, either. For everyone else, it is a wonderful movie to discuss.
Amy Adams’ performance is watertight. I smelt a bit of insincerity when she was playing with her daughter early in the movie but there are no bad performances here. At all. Maybe the child actor? Maybe? There’s but a single moment that could qualify as a one-liner, but this entire film has a refreshing earnestness to it, and I really felt I was watching real people, not scripted actors.
Perception, determinism, and language are the main themes of the movie. I do not believe that Arrival qualifies as one of those “you have to see it twice to really understand it” movies. It’s plot isn’t so dense it’s indecipherable and the twist clarifies rather than muddles everything you’ve seen, though a second viewing would benefit an analysis of its themes and of course a better understanding of the alien language.
What I did pick up on was the theme of perception being upheld visually by the director’s choice of visual cues. The movie opens and closes on the same window in Louise’s house. Windows of course are a means of perception. There is a similar window inside the alien craft that serves as the barrier between the humans and the entities. And finally, the third visual cue comes when the media (on tv screens similar in shape to the previous windows) announce that (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the world nations have decided to reveal their pieces of the puzzle. It’s the final perception of unity. All the while, Louise struggles with haunting “memories” she’s perceiving of her daughter.
The film raises a lot of questions it doesn’t intend to answer such as is the future fixed or is it fluid? Is a deterministic view the correct philosophical understanding of our existence, or do we actually have free will? How could a human being live with such a comprehension of reality? Whatever the answers may be I hope they don’t reek of universe-building. The last thing Arrival needs is a franchise.
Not making references to previous science fiction is impossible. Arrival cannot hope to entirely free itself from sci-fi cliché. Leaps of intuition and eureka moments where the main characters suddenly risk their own safety and global security abound in the genre, particularly in first contact films, and there’s a little of that in here, though I didn’t think it was unwarranted given the information we were already told about there being minimal radiation in the extraterrestrial craft.
Another thing you see a lot in alien movies is the ridiculous incompetence of the military. Given they want to be as careful and as delicate as possible, so you can understand why they’d want to keep secrets and be covert, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Why was there so little security at the military base? (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Nobody stopped Louise from driving out to the ship herself? Nobody saw the soldiers loading up C4 to bomb the ship? Nobody stopped them from going out to shoot at it? They could track a call made to China on the base but they couldn’t find where their experts went whenever they decided to go for a stroll?
At one point early on, I leaned over to my friend and made a Jurassic Park reference. The first act will remind you of that. Still, this has got to be one of the more unique first contact movies with its emphasis on language and perception, and being a hard sci-fi film immediately sets it apart from the chatter.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
It’s truly rare when a film can bridge the gap between hard and soft sci-fi, when it can be both heady and intellectual and emotional and heartfelt simultaneously. I want to add this one to my collection. I walked out satisfied I’d seen a modern sci-fi classic. I need to see this movie again!
Have you seen it yet? Are you at all curious? What did you think of the twist? Or do you not care for sci-fi at all? Fisticuffs!
Aggregated Score: 8.5