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by maryann johanson, liberal movie person

Arrival movie review: how to talk to aliens and expand your consciousness

Arrival green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Intelligent, intense, grownup science fiction that will thrill genre lovers and satisfy fans of moving human drama. A beautiful, thought-provoking film.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): huge science fiction fan; desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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 ideastweet, 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.

Arrival does what SF does best: it asks us to consider what it means to be human.
tweet

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?

A coffee stain? Or a sentence? Only your genius linguist knows for sure...

A coffee stain? Or a sentence? Only your genius linguist knows for sure.tweet

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 requiretweet. 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.)

The aliens here, and their language, are truly alien in a way that few SF movies ever bother trying to attempt.
tweet

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.tweet 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.

What every heroic female scientist needs: a male sidekick brilliant enough to bounce ideas off, and cute enough to look good while doing it.

What every heroic female scientist needs: a male sidekick brilliant enough to bounce ideas off, and cute enough to look good while doing it.tweet

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 tweakingtweet 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 tandemtweet. I also think it’s one of the best movie 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.

viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival


green light 5 stars

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Arrival (2016) | directed by Denis Villeneuve
US/Can release: Nov 11 2016
UK/Ire release: Nov 10 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for brief strong language
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Arthur

    I remember (1999?) when I was blown away by Chiang’s story. Yeah, the maternal angle is crucial to the story, and I can’t wait to see how this was adapted.

  • CB

    Sounds fantastic, and I hadn’t heard of this movie before. Reminds me of Contact, which I loved btw, what with the brilliant female scientist unraveling alien communication, only immediate rather than abstract. Looking forward to it.

  • LaSargenta

    This is great news. I really liked the trailer.

  • crowTrobot

    At the moment I would wholeheartedly welcome an alien invasion.

  • RogerBW

    Autumn: because spring is for rubbish that nobody wants, summer is for expensive rubbish with explosions, and winter is for potential Oscar winners and the Academy hates SF?

  • Patrick

    So “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, “The Martian”, and “Arrival” are proof positive that they could make thoughtful “Star Trek” movies again if they gave they audience some credit? Because giving their audience credit was a hallmark of that franchise back in the day (rather than re-hashing “Wrath of Khan” over and over and over…).

    Which of the aforementioned would be your pick for best SF movie of the decade so far, MaryAnn?

  • Danielm80

    I found this article by the screenwriter encouraging, especially after the election:

    http://thetalkhouse.com/how-i-wrote-arrival/

    I hope some politicians pay attention to the second lesson he learned:

    Let the smart people be smart.

    I found something more intimidating than writing for characters way smarter than I am, and that is: Writing for characters way smarter than I am as they face the biggest mental challenge of their lives.

    To acclimate myself, I socialized with linguists and physicists. I spent time around brilliant minds to hear how they talked to each other. And whether they were on or off work, they used jargon and references from their world. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t keep up, this was their normal mental gear. If I asked for clarification on some concept or theory, they were happy to oblige, but it was assumed everyone in their circle knew.

    What lit up a neurologist’s eyes, what made a rocket scientist’s day, was sharing an idea. These are people who revel in theory the way my usual circle of friends talks up a new movie or an indie game on Steam. What that meant for me was that I had to embrace the expository moments. Smart people are constant teachers, and I had to unlearn my own rule about avoiding moments where a character stopped to explain or define something. Sometimes it’s welcomed.

  • proof positive that they could make thoughtful “Star Trek” movies again

    I disagree with this premise. I’ve enjoyed the new *Trek* movies, and I do find them thoughtful. But even if you don’t, this does not compute. *Trek* is its own thing, with a long history and tons of preconceptions built in, which does not apply to the other movies you mention.

    Which of the aforementioned would be your pick for best SF movie of the decade so far, MaryAnn?

    I don’t like picking a single best: what’s the point? And anyway, why do you presume it would be one of those?

  • Patrick

    I just meant of the thoughtful hard-SF movies of the past few years that you mentioned. I was just curious.

    As for Trek, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • Patrick

    Actually, I screwed up about the “best of the decade” question. I’m sorry to presume…

  • They’re all good. No need to pick.

  • Aaron Jones

    I wore my Heroine Addict shirt to this one (and to others in the recent past, but I particularly wanted to represent for this movie).

  • Cool!

  • RobertP

    How do we even begin to find a common ground for communication with them?

    Does the original story address the issue that these aliens with the technology to build massive ships that can travel across time and space, who specifically picked Earth and grasped how things go on Earth, were able to detect and observe Earth remotely in the first place, can communicate with each other via some means undetectable to Earth tech – yet despite all these advanced capabilities when they get here they don’t know how to communicate in any Earth language?

    If it’s explicitly addressed in the film I didn’t catch it.

    …humanity is clearly hopelessly, hilariously outgunned next to whoever
    designed and built these sleek and beautiful and obviously faster-than-light ships…

    Which made the Chinese commander’s zeal for attacking them and the rogue soldiers’ bomb really stupid.

  • Danielm80

    There’s an easy way to find out:

    https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00L2EQODK/theflickfilosoph

    MaryAnn hasn’t read the book, as she stated above. Perhaps you’re confusing her with Cliff Notes.

  • RobertP

    She also isn’t the only one who can add input. While the question isn’t purely rhetorical, I was mostly pointing out a glaring issue. I might read it someday, it’s not going to be today or tomorrow. A film should stand on its own. If the original story addresses it, it’s a huge oversight to not work it into the film. If it doesn’t, it’s a huge oversight on the part of the author.

  • RogerBW

    The film’s job is to stand alone. So whether the director/scriptwriter cut out explanatory material, or failed to invent it, that’s still a failure of the filmmaking team.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It seems clear in the narrative that it is important to the heptapods that the humans decipher heptapod language on their own. Given that that language is the key to the story, I’m willing to assume it’s something like the Matrix.
    https://youtu.be/Owd1p0acSOI?t=2m57s

  • RobertP

    ~Shrug~ Sure is a lucky happenstance that the authorities found the only two people on the planet who could, and only as a team, decipher the language.

    Dunno, if it were the case that they were capable of communicating in the King’s English you’d think they would have broken protocol to spell out “Yo! There’s a bomb in that case behind ya’ll!!”

  • Well, humans *can* be really stupid.

    Does the original story address the issue

    I haven’t read it, which I state right at the top of the review, so I’m not sure why you’re asking me.

    If it’s explicitly addressed in the film I didn’t catch it.

    Do you think it might be implicit in the aliens’ actions? Like, they need us to do the hard work of learning to talk to them?

  • A film should stand on its own.

    And this one does.

  • the only two people on the planet who could, and only as a team, decipher the language.

    That’s not true at all. The teams around the planet are working together and sharing what they discover.

    you’d think they would have broken protocol

    They’re alien. *Very* alien. We cannot even begin to guess at their protocol. Maybe they considered it an internal issue among this small group of humans, and no concern of theirs.

  • RobertP

    I haven’t read it, which I state right at the top of the review, so I’m not sure why you’re asking me.

    I was really asking anyone who could offer insight, just quoting the part of the review that was pertinent.

    Do you think it might be implicit in the aliens’ actions? Like, they need us to do the hard work of learning to talk to them?

    Maybe – not clear why this would be better than teaching in a faster manner particularly given that the initial miscommunication was a catalyst for bad results – the death of one of the heptapods – and easily could have had even worse results.

  • RobertP

    The teams around the planet are working together and sharing what they discover.

    I got the impression that it was Louise and Ian who were the most key in figuring it out, and Ian figured out a crucial piece of the puzzle they’d been struggling with while she was asleep. They realized something the others didn’t – the Chinese commander was going to attack until she dissuaded him with her desperate, clandestine phone call.

    They’re alien. *Very* alien. We cannot even begin to guess at their
    protocol. Maybe they considered it an internal issue among this small
    group of humans, and no concern of theirs.

    I was thinking of the immediate danger of the bomb to all parties involved – it became the heptapods’ concern in that it killed one of them.

  • Danielm80

    Twelve different countries all sent their best linguists and their best scientists to meet with the heptapods, because that’s the smart thing to do in that situation. All twelve teams were able to make sense of the language. One team had additional insights that turned out to be important. That’s not a shocking coincidence. Their jobs specifically trained them to have insights in those areas. Odds were pretty high that at least one of the teams would solve the problem. The filmmakers chose to follow the team that did because that’s the most significant and most interesting part of the story. In fact, it’s the reason the story is worth telling.

    Does the original story address the issue that these aliens with the technology to build massive ships that can travel across time and space, who specifically picked Earth and grasped how things go on Earth, were able to detect and observe Earth remotely in the first place, can communicate with each other via some means undetectable to Earth tech – yet despite all these advanced capabilities when they get here they don’t know how to communicate in any Earth language?

    If you go to a university to learn a language or study linguistics, you’re going to go to the department that specializes in that area, probably in the humanities.

    If you decide you want to learn to build spaceships, you’re going to go to a completely different department, maybe even a different school that emphasizes science and technology.

    It’s possible that heptapod society focused its energies on the sciences and is more advanced in that area than in linguistics. They still knew enough about language skills to be confident that they could communicate with human beings.

    And that’s not a surprise, because they can see ahead to what we consider the future. They already know how the situation turns out, so they’re not taking any reckless risks. They know how the story ends.

    And, as other people have already suggested, it may be essential to the learning process that humans cooperate with the heptapod said and figure how to work and speak with each other.

    If you’re desperate to find plot holes in the movie—as you seem to be—you might focus on the time paradoxes. But I’m not sure why you’re spending so much of your life trying to tear apart an otherwise enjoyable movie.

  • RobertP

    If you’re desperate to find plot holes in the movie—as you seem to be—you might focus on the time paradoxes.

    Thanks for clarifying what Daniel80 deems acceptable to focus on.

    I wonder why you spend so much of your life vainly trying to chastise me. Discourse re: the points raised is great, the rest is noise.

  • LaSargenta

    Wow.

    Time paradoxes and all.

    Just wow.

  • Maybe they wanted to see how we deal with miscommunication. Or how different cultures on Earth with different languages that wire our brains differently deal with learning their language. There seem to be lots of possibilities.

  • Maybe they don’t have the same concern about individuals that we do.

  • RobertP

    Maybe they don’t have the same concern about individuals that we do.

    What?? The aliens are commies?!? I knew it!

    :)

  • Danielm80

    Okay, I’ll admit it. That’s pretty funny.

  • Jurgan

    Well, technically you did pick when you said “each year’s installment has been better than the last.” Yeah, I’m being pedantic, but then if there was ever a movie where it was appropriate to nitpick the intricacies of language…

  • Jurgan

    Just saw this one. I liked it a lot (not quite as much as Interstellar), but I’m not sure I saw as much depth to it as you. Everything fit together so well- at first I was thinking a lot of stuff could be cut out, like the dead child subplot, but it all paid off. And I like hard sci-fi that emphasizes the process. I’m a mathematician, and the scenes of people working together and talking about their theories felt very real to me.

    *spoiler*
    I’m not sure the themes are that new if you’ve read Slaughterhouse Five. There’s always a sort of fatalism to any story involving time loops (yes, this kind of applies to Interstellar as well). But I like the way the world fights over what to do with the aliens, and the movie emphasizes communication over violence. I was a little surprised, though, that China and the other warlike countries seemed to be preparing to attack with conventional weapons and there was no mention of nukes.

  • FlyingSquirrel42

    Disclaimer: I’m skeptical of the entire notion of “not perceiving time as linear,” at least in the sense of the perception enabling someone to see the future. It’s a bit like saying that I can throw a ball and simultaneously see it still in my hand, in the air, and hitting the ground. I can’t do that, and I find it hard to imagine that any change in my brain chemistry would allow me to do that.

    That said, if we accept the concept of them not viewing time in a linear fashion, then the entire notion of planning ahead and making choices that would change outcomes is probably something that they experience very differently than we do. They might well have known that, in the end, things would turn out OK between them and Earth aside from the death of “Abbott.” They may have considered that an acceptable trade-off. Or they may not have even thought in terms of having other options or choosing not to travel to Earth – they could perceive the future as being just as immutable as the past.

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