Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker
Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
Hollywood portrayals of first contact with alien life can range from the mostly benevolent (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact) to the mostly world-threatening (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Sometimes the aliens stand in judgement over humanity (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Abyss). Or maybe the material circumstances are a lot more petty (Alien, Predator, Fire in the Sky) or desperate (E.T., District 9, Paul). But how many of them posit that an encounter with beings from an alien civilization will be mostly frustrating to us? In most of these films, the aliens possess fairly recognizable motives and behaviors, and sometimes even bear a familiar humanoid appearance. Arrival however begins with the premise that when the aliens do show up at our doorstep, their motives will be opaque to us. And without a universal translator available, we’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time figuring out their language before we can ask the question “What is your purpose on Earth?”
This is what linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has to patiently explain to the less than pleased U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a man under enormous pressure to come up with quick answers when 12 lens-shaped spacecraft appear out of nowhere and hover over 12 different locations across the globe. The squid-like aliens have hollowed out a large chamber within each spacecraft where they pump in enough air to allow humans to survive for two hours at a time. The humans can then personally interact with the aliens through a transparent partition. But none of the scientists sent in to communicate with them can make heads or tails of their strange vocalizations, until Weber sends Banks to the spacecraft hovering over rural Montana to decipher the “Heptapod” language.
And even when Banks makes enough headway to start asking the blunt questions her bosses demand, the answers she gets are maddeningly confusing. Meanings found in the words from any human language are often ambiguous enough, let alone the strange writings originating from an extraterrestrial society. Are the Heptapods offering the humans an ultimate weapon, advanced star drive technology, or are they simply sharing information? Are they trying to set the U.S. and China against each other? Every possible nuance in the translation keeps sending the world’s governments closer to the brink of a third world war.
I won’t spoil the big plot twist, which involves a very fanciful extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But the film’s theme of how language can determine our experience of reality is handled with very subtle pacing that ties Banks’ personal life with the larger international crisis. Attempts to coordinate the separate translation efforts of the Heptapod language divides the world and exacerbates cultural misunderstandings like some otherworldly Tower of Babel. But as Banks begins to dream in Heptapod, she experiences visions that seem to collapse her perception of time. Earlier flashbacks of her life which seem completely irrelevant to the main story start to congeal into a pattern that mirrors the Heptapod’s swirling ideograms.
Arrival’s third act revelation shares a few parallels to Interstellar, though the 2014 film’s attempt to mesh relativistic physics with the Power of Love comes across as trite. Arrival’s own reveal isn’t anymore scientifically plausible, but the film’s tighter focus on Banks yields far more convincing results. Shifting the attention towards linguists instead of the usual collection of scientists and mathematicians lends a fresh perspective. Everything takes on greater importance when the fate of two species is dependent on comprehending the other side’s motivations.
But the film’s greatest asset is Adams, as the story could have collapsed under the weight of its own ideas if not for her highly calibrated performance. Adams makes excellent use of her own sweet, unthreatening demeanour to convey a character who’s understandably overwhelmed by the momentous nature of the occasion, but hiding a steely resolve that slowly emerges as the stakes are raised. During their first meeting, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) quickly dismisses Banks expertise, and by extension the contributions of the entire field of linguistics, as secondary to his own field. But when set next to Adam’s understated brilliance, Renner’s cocksure pose ends up looking brittle and amusingly childish. From that point there’s never any doubt about who becomes the leading voice in understanding the Heptapods, or her own species.