Christopher Orr in The Atlantic is calling Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival “the best film of the year.” The year’s not over yet, but Orr may be onto something. This epic depiction of the efforts of a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) to decode the language of visiting aliens before jumpy politicians and generals blow them to smithereens is a welcome reminder that science fiction can be much more than spaceship dogfights or acid-dripping, razor-fanged monsters. At its smartest, sci-fi expands our ways of looking at life, the universe and everything. And Arrival is the smartest movie that I’ve seen in any genre in a long, long time.
When a dozen enormous black oval UFOs suddenly appear on Earth, hovering a bit above the ground in what seem like random locations, Dr. Louise Banks is called in by the US Army – partly because she still has top-level security clearance from a previous gig translating terrorists’ communications in Farsi, and partly because she’s so damned good at what she does. Though the film can fairly be described as a thriller, Louise is far from a conventional action hero. She’s a low-key, quiet loner, living with painful memories of a cherished daughter who died in adolescence from an unspecified illness. And when it’s time for her to enter the spacecraft looming above Montana, she’s shaking in terror. But by the closing credits, she has taught the military, the scientists and everyone else around her a serious lesson in the true meaning of courage and sacrifice.
Most of her struggle, racing the clock to prevent potential global catastrophe as much of humanity goes into blind panic mode, is contained, cerebral; and Adams does a stunning job of conveying what’s roiling inside her emotionally while her character remains intently task-focused. Louise is aided and abetted in her work by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who admires her “mathematical” approach to interspecies communication, while an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker), a CIA honcho (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a Chinese general (Tzi Ma) keep throwing up roadblocks – especially once Louise and Ian start deducing some ambiguous, possibly frightening fragments of the aliens’ complex semantics.
Arrival is an especially piquant intellectual puzzle for anyone who has even a slight familiarity with the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, a controversial psycholinguistic premise that has been deconstructed and reconstructed repeatedly since the 1930s. The film provides a sketchy explanation, but enough for the newbie to be getting on with. Basically, what it means is that people tend more readily to perceive things and concepts for which their language has words, for which their grammar has structures. If you live near the Arctic Circle, you probably discern more differences in types of snow – and have more ways of describing them – than someone from more temperate climes whose survival does not depend on those fine distinctions.
In politics – as exemplified in the film by a talk show host who is rabble-rousing on behalf of a preemptive strike against the inscrutable visitors from space – this hypothesis of “linguistic relativity” manifests in the form of verbal “framing.” Repeating certain words ad nauseam about a particular issue (or political candidate) will eventually influence listeners to perceive the subject that way, even if they aren’t true. People who are good at this often go far as pundits, making their fortunes by polarizing the masses. In Arrival, Louise applies the Whorfian principle when she discovers that her Chinese counterparts are trying to communicate with their own space visitors using mah-jongg tiles as a medium, pointing out that if she tried to use the game of chess in the same way, all messages would inevitably be couched in the language of war.
While some frustrating shortcuts are taken in depicting to the audience exactly how Louise and Ian puzzle out what the aliens have come here to tell us, it’s still a refreshing thrill to see intellectual prowess and dedicated teamwork so celebrated onscreen. These are no egotistical, power-hungry mad scientists; they are highly intelligent people doing their best to save the world – perhaps more worlds than one. Science fiction is one of the few genres where that nerdy view of heroism still flies, sometimes.
Arrival’s art direction is solid, impressive, but not so showy as to overwhelm the human drama. The alien Heptapods – who squirt out written messages in squid ink that rather resemble black beer stains on cardboard coasters – are cool to look at, their vessel’s slightly asymmetrical aesthetics admirably minimalistic and alien. But these filmmakers aren’t angling in any obvious way for set design or special effects Oscars. They’re aiming for a more cosmic target: opening viewers’ minds about big concepts like nonlinear time and how profoundly our choices shape our destinies. If you relish movies that make you think, Arrival is a rare treat, not to be missed.