Ever since the silent film A Trip to the Moon was shown in 1902 audiences have turned to Science Fiction for creative images of life beyond earth. Generally speaking, Sci-Fi’s play on our fears and curiosity about alien threats, or their appearance, or their technology. The film Arrival (2016) takes a different approach by looking at the challenges of language when first contact is made. Under a thick layer of American propaganda, the film also offers a sermon about global cooperation.
The central storyline is simple: twelve huge elliptical extra-terrestial objects arrive on earth and hover just above ground level in twelve locations across the globe. While each nation carries out its own threat assessments, the Americans opt to explore how to communicate with the visitors rather than default to military options. Our heroine is accomplished linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who leads a team assigned to enter the spacecraft and assess if humans can communicate with the visitors. Paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) they represent the soft and hard faces of science. When contact is made with the tentacled aliens via a glass-like wall it becomes evident that dialogue is possible using a form of circular symbols.
Global panic erupts when linguistic trial and error decodes a symbol for “weapon” and China prepares to attack even though Louise believes the translation is ambiguous. In the midst of the crisis, she is haunted by visions of her daughter who died of a rare disease. The visions gradually transition from memories to predictions. Unlike human linear memory the aliens have circular memory that connects the past, present and future. Her flashbacks and flash-forwards are the key to understanding the film but they add a layer of narrative confusion in the process.
The film’s unsurprising message is that when alien contact occurs the future of the planet will depend on global cooperation. This theme is packaged inside a story that is told with digital effects that are modest by today’s standards. Some will feel let down by the unimaginative spindly alien forms that are kept at a hazy distance within the concrete bunker-like spaceship setting. The back-story of Louise’s personal life is a distracting melodrama and the concept of memory circularity is a weak idea on which to base the plot. That the Hollywood dream-factory makes America the global saviour again is not new. Unlike other visually ground-breaking Sci-Fi’s this one is more about ideas than spectacle. But it is a thought-provoking film about the technology of language and it works well at this level.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker