Review: 'Arrival', a New First-Contact Classic, Is What 'Interstellar' Failed To Be

'Arrival' takes advantage of a conflict between the past and the future to reveal how language can change the way we understand our purpose.

A scene from the film 'Arrival' (2016). Credit: Paramount Pictures

A scene from the film ‘Arrival’ (2016). Credit: Paramount Pictures

Is Arrival a new sci-fi classic? Maybe. Is it a first contact classic? More likely. Like the original classics of this genre, Arrival is about the human response to first contact, and it offers a refreshing, even breathtaking, take on the much-experimented topic. The movie is about the efforts of two humans to communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth in twelve pods over different countries. The humans – linguist/translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – attempt to decipher the extra-terrestrial creatures’ communications. It’s a journey that begins with the assumption that finding the aliens’ purpose on Earth will be the endgame. And in the manner of the Asimov/Clarkesque classics, Arrival is about how we can begin to transcend such assumptions and rethink our choices.

In this universe, humankind inhabits a contradiction. We are extremely insignificant in the prosaic sense, when we survey the extraordinary proportions of the universe. Yet, we are also infinitely unique in the poetic as we contemplate the human themes of love and intimacy. It’s always been hard to reconcile the two; those who manage it are hailed as masters of art. And Arrival‘s genius is in taking this reconciled human along for the ride. It is cognisant of human limits, and both accommodates and informs human experiences when trying to explore the thrill of first contact. Using the opportunities made available by an incomprehensible stranger in our midst, Arrival probes the human tendency to love even if we know it will end in pain.

The probe takes the shape of language. Banks, the linguist, is tasked by the military to understand what the aliens might be saying with their strange foghorn vocalisations and squid-ink logograms that look like coffee-mug stains. The movie doesn’t exactly gloss over her technical achievements – it discusses them, in fact – but it focuses more on the interactions between language and time. Through the eyes of Banks and her relationship with her daughter and her husband, Arrival explores how the two elemental entities can quickly form a maze inside which we, the audience, can lose touch with reality. It takes advantage of a conflict between the past and the future to elucidate how language can change the way we understand our purpose. For starters, and in the image of M.C. Escher’s 1961 lithograph Waterfall, by offering us new perspectives.

There are pithy clues about Arrival‘s overall point scattered throughout, especially through the use of ideas like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, palindromic names, non-linear orthography, non-zero-sum games and, ultimately, timelessness. There is also a deceptive continuity at play which, at the climax that comes right at the end, reveals a twist in the tale sufficient to make you question what it is that you will now take away.

And then there’s a lesser but quite useful self-reflexive thing at work: in the first half, Banks realises that she’s never going to be able to make the noises the aliens are, so she might as well resort to visual communication. Similarly, it doesn’t really matter to the audience that it’s following what’s being said on screen. The visuals say it all.

This is why it is doubly good to find that other aspects of filmmaking chipped in to prevent the viewer from getting a real grip on anything else but the totality of the problem at hand. Especial kudos for this go to the director, Denis Villeneuve (who also made 2015’s Sicario), Eric Heisserer’s adapted screenplay and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie soundtrack. There’s also the gloomy weather and the grey-white mist that the aliens swim through. This is much appreciated. As a result of all of this, Arrival‘s awe does not rely on shock or absurdity. This way, a viewer doesn’t forget the movie once she is able to forget what shocked or amused her. Remember Interstellar (2014) and its use of black-holes and higher-dimensional space?

Like all faithful probes, Arrival introduces itself to reveal some things and then removes itself. And when it’s around, it touches all the right sci-fi notes: enigma (with too many variables at the outset for anyone to predict how the plot will flow but just the right variables to keep it from being vague), simplicity (not complicating matters or being in a hurry to act simply because the script – originally written as a novella by Ted Chiang – is fascinated by the subject) and plausibility. It is also aware of contemporary social and political circumstances, and ensures it doesn’t get carried away by encaging its scientific curiosity within the urgent need for useful answers.

Arrival also bears a striking resemblance in parts to the Robert Zemeckis film Contact (1997), mostly in the first half as well as in its use of a female protagonist who has three characteristics: she is academically well-qualified; she is not afraid of doing the right-but-risky thing in the face of a hidebound authority; and she is used in the script as a conduit for conveying the more emotional aspects of the story. Agreed, Interstellar was an exception on the last count, but Contact and Arrival both bank on the use of childhood memories and the memories of now-dead family members to ease the shock of first contact.

Ultimately, Arrival presents an evolved understanding of how humans can begin to communicate with aliens – of the sort that literature has glimpsed before in books like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead and China Miéville’s Embassytown. In fact, Arrival is wedged somewhere in between: it is not too simple but not too complex either. Like Adams’s character says at the beginning, linguistics may be intellectually compelling but in the preface for a book on it, she’d have to begin by dazzling her readers with the basics. “Language is the foundation of civilisation; in any conflict, the first weapon drawn is language.” This is true. This is also Arrival.