Tue. May 30th, 2023
Louise (Amy Adams) gives the first alien high-five in human history.
enlarge / Louise (Amy Adams) gives the first alien high-five in human history.

Arrival is the compelling, slow story of an alien encounter that is satisfyingly complex. Instead of showing us blowing up the buggers, this movie asks a tough question: How would we communicate with seemingly peaceful aliens whose language is as impenetrable as whale song? The welcome surprise is that Arrival explores the answers without shunning the reality of how linguistics works, as well as the geopolitical ramifications of first contact.

Louise (Amy Adams) is a gifted linguistics professor who has done some mocking work for the government, translating videos shot by foreign insurgents. As the film begins, her quiet classroom life is permanently disrupted when a dozen massive spaceships materialize over seemingly random regions around the world. The ships are not made of any material we recognize and do not emit any chemical signature. They float like perfectly curved stones just above the ground. Twice a day, an opening appears in the bottom of each ship, through which people enter the gravity-bizarre interior to encounter squid-like aliens floating in what appears to be an atmosphere chamber behind a transparent barrier.

The aliens, called heptapods because of their seven legs, make sounds that are completely incomprehensible. When military officer Weber (Forest Whitaker) plays a recording of one of Louise’s and demands a translation, she can’t even figure out what kind of organ could be producing the sounds. “Do they have… mouths?” she asks, bewildered. Despite her initial confusion, Louise manages to crack the alien code by writing to communicate with them instead of speech.

The lower half of the alien ships, which look like carved mountains hanging in the sky.
enlarge / The lower half of the alien ships, which look like carved mountains hanging in the sky.

And this is where the film goes from pretty good to superlative. We watch as Louise and her colleagues – including astronomer Ian (Jeremy Renner) – decode the writing of the heptapodes using data analysis. Each heptapod “word” is actually a sentence with no beginning or end, like squid ink squirted from the aliens’ fingers into graceful circular shapes whose twisting contours are units of meaning. Eventually, Louise realizes that this writing system reflects the way the heptapods view time itself as a nonlinear experience.

What makes this film a scientific adventure of the order of? The Martian is the fact that it all depends on the subtleties of the translation. Linguistics is the key to the action. When people around the world finally know enough heptapod language to ask the aliens why they came to Earth, the answer is a blobby ring of a sentence that is very difficult to interpret. Is it a promise of danger? From friendship? Or something so alien that we can’t really know? Each country is coming to its own conclusions and global tensions are mounting.

Louise translates a heptapod phrase.
enlarge / Louise translates a heptapod phrase.

Louise and Ian find themselves stuck in a situation familiar to many scientists and engineers as they try to convince their military cohorts to accept that their findings aren’t easy. They need more data to get answers, and of course language is one of the most ambiguous sources of data imaginable. This eventually becomes one of the bigger themes of the film, pulsating with images of people trying to communicate. State leaders can hardly collaborate on the heptapod project via videoconferencing; political experts on YouTube spew misinformation to excite citizens with stories of alien conspiracies; and the scientists themselves are given very little airtime to explain their complex findings. It turns out that communicating with beings from another world may be easier than communicating with other people.

What makes this story so satisfying, however, is that it’s not just about a global crisis. It’s also a very personal story of how Louise’s consciousness changes as she learns the heptapod language. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis predicts, speaking a new language can literally rewire your brain. The film explores this idea by giving Louise visions of a mysterious little girl, whose presence becomes more urgent the more Louise thinks in heptapod. Her translations will change her intimate life as well as the entire planet, and it’s moving to see her come to terms with them.

Louise and Ian analyze the alien language.
enlarge / Louise and Ian analyze the alien language.

Based on a short story by award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang, Arrival is faithful to the source material while also building in a few new storylines that complement the original work. What emerges from Chiang’s haunting “Story of Your Life” is Louise’s transformative consciousness and the idea that communication is the most difficult science of all. At a time when alien movies are often blockbusters full of VFX or mindless war stories, it’s incredibly refreshing to see an original story like this.

in many ways, Arrival is a worthy heir to the vision afforded in the still breathtaking 1950s film The day the earth stood still. Like that video Arrival gives us minimalist alien ships that feel really futuristic. It also carries the same message of human redemption, made possible in part by ultra-powerful, gently benevolent brethren from outer space. And instead of exploring dystopia, like so many other thoughtful science fiction films, it defends the idea that science and rationality will save us from our worst instincts.

The difficult truth about first contact is that it will change humanity in ways we cannot predict. And, frustratingly, we may never understand the aliens we encounter simply because the gap between us is too great. Instead of offering solutions to these riddles, Arrival has the audacity to suggest that we might be able to muddle through without knowing everything. Perhaps, even if our translations aren’t perfect, we can learn to overcome the barriers between Earth cultures.

If you like a thrilling story that is both action-packed and thought-provoking, Arrival is just the right movie for you this weekend.

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By akfire1

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