Gravity in October 2013. Interstellar in November 2014. The Martian in October 2015. And Arrival right now. Is autumn Hollywood’s new go-to time for intelligent, intense, grownup science fiction drama? It looks like. It’s a shame we appear to have only one slot for such a film each year, but, you know, baby steps. And each year’s installment has been better than the last: Arrival is a wonder, a beautiful movie that will thrill fans of real science fiction, of the literature of paradigm-busting ideas, as well as those who may have been turned off the genre because of the shallow way in which cinema too often uses it. Because this is a science fiction movie that does what SF does best: it asks us to consider what it means to be human, a reflection that surely any thinking person engages in.
Even better: It’s entirely possible that, should we care to imagine the SF scenario of a nonhuman alien visiting Earth deciding to check out this movie, zie might be prompted hirself to consider what it means to be a member of whatever species zie is a member of. Nothing here is about biology or DNA but about what it means to be a creature who is alive and aware, who can contemplate one’s own existence, who can plan for the future and look back to the past. The science fiction part of that, how Arrival distinguishes itself from more mundane sorts of navel-gazing, comes in here specifically through the realm of linguistics, in how language affects how we think and how we see the world (and the universe). Anyone who has chuckled over the fact that the Inuits have 50 different words for snow or how precisely philosophical Germans can get with their vocabulary is already aware of this notion. But if humans can vary so widely in the languages we have invented to allow us to get a grasp on reality, what should expect from aliens with radically different biologies from wildly different planetary environments? How do we even begin to find a common ground for communication with them?
That is the job that linguist American Dr. Louise Banks (the always astonishing Amy Adams: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Big Eyes) is brought in to do when a fleet of 12 alien vessels arrives at Earth and settles to hover, quietly and mysteriously, over locations all over the planet. We’ve seen first-contact and alien-invasion scenarios plenty of times before on the big screen, and this one is, at first, familiar: militaries are only barely holding themselves in check, because while the aliens have not been aggressive at all, humanity is clearly hopelessly, hilariously outgunned next to whoever designed and built these sleek and beautiful and obviously faster-than-light ships. But panic quickly sets in among we fearful upright apes: “Alien Crisis,” the 24-hour TV news dubs the rioting, the stock-market crashes, the general mood of distress and uncertainty.
But that’s only on TV. Here, on the remote Midwestern American plain where humans are meeting aliens (we don’t see any of the 11 other landing locations except at a remove), Banks is a calm, sensitive presence as she goes about her work, rejecting fear and embracing the desire for a genuine connection that talking to the aliens will require. Each of her breakthroughs, every time she makes even a tenuous connection with the aliens, is absolutely breathtaking, a reminder of how much we take for granted in interacting with others and a remainder that common ground exists even between beings who are vastly dissimilar. (The aliens here, and their language, are truly alien in a way that few SF movies ever bother trying to attempt.)
Banks is brave, too, in a way that she would, I’m sure, insist is not brave, simply necessary: She is the first to throw off her protective hazmat suit in the Earth-environment chamber the aliens have prepared in their ship for human visitors. The suit is too distancing, too minimizing when communication for humans, at least, is as much about eye contact and body language as it is about speech and the written word. She shames everyone else in the story — such as the military officer played by Forest Whitaker (Southpaw, Dope) and the government agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange, Miles Ahead) — by being bold in the face of the unknown when they quaver. Banks is a wonderful treat of a female protagonist, a rarity in her brains and her dedication. She’s even got a cute male sidekick, just like men onscreen usually get to have, in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner: Captain America: Civil War, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), who is at least smart enough for her to bounce ideas off and is here to do not much more than support her and her work.
But the real joy and miracle of Arrival is how Banks’s work with the aliens paints a portrait of brilliance and knowledge as a whole-life thing. For she brings to her work her experience as the mother of a young daughter. That child appears to no longer be around — some tragedy befell her — but Banks’s memories of the child and of the experience of being a mother seem to be important to unraveling the secrets of communication and connection with the aliens… and maybe even to maintaining communication and connection with her fellow humans when that begins to fall apart. Among the many tropes of alien-invasion stories that get a clever tweaking in Arrival is the one that presumes that an alien invasion would unite humanity: that might not be happening here, or if it is, it may not be for the reasons we expect. But there are other, more intimate connections that being faced with the awesomeness of humanity’s place in the universe might forge.
Arrival is my favorite movie of the year so far, for its powerful humanity, for its intelligent and warmhearted protagonist, for how deeply it moved me with its understanding of the heart and the mind as not two things at war with each other but working in unified tandem. I also think it’s one of the best movies of the year so far (which isn’t always the same as a favorite), for how it plays with cinematic conventions of storytelling: director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing) adapt American SF writer Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella “Story of Your Life” in such a way that your experience of events here beautifully mirrors Banks’s expanding comprehension of her experience here. But what I might love most about Arrival is how its theme about language changing our brain also works on a meta level: science fiction changes your brain. You will walk out of this movie with a brand-new appreciation for how the manipulations of reality that only SF can offer makes you see the world in a completely fresh way, with a wider, more encompassing understanding of your place in it.