“Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” -Dr. Louise Banks
12 strange alien pods arrive on Earth in 12 different unrelated locations. Every 18 hours a door in the pod opens, and two “heptapods” (alien creatures with seven legs) appear. The army’s attempts at communicating with them are fruitless.
Enter college professor and linguist Dr. Louise Banks (the talented and beautiful Amy Adams).
An army official, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), recruits Dr. Banks alongside astrophysicist, Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, who at times can be a jerk, but is brilliant nonetheless). Anyway, Louise and Ian try to communicate with the aliens. The army is pressing them for answers, they want to know what’s they’re purpose on Earth, but Louise takes a more academic (and rational) approach to communicating with them and tries to learn their language.
The attempts at communicating with the aliens are happening at all 12 locations and the countries were collaborating. But because collaboration and working peacefully is too challenging for humans, conflict erupts. And to avoid spoiling this phenomenal movie, I’ll just say that the last part of the movie is about conflict resolution.
“Am I the only one having trouble saying “aliens”?”
This was such a beautiful movie! The first thing that I think of is the visuals; unlike Dr. Strange’s trippy cinematography, this was very serene. There were a lot of wide shots of vast grassland and large space pods, lots of white and gray spaces. It felt liberating. And unlike other sci-fi movies that tend to bombard the viewer with explosions and special effects to establish the extraterrestrial tone, Villeneue establishes this tone by allowing the viewer to soak in each scene slowly. It was very calm and subtle to the point that it eventually feels overwhelming, even ominous; and that’s the beauty of it. It slowly gets under your skin, slowly makes you feel that this is not normal (think the Uncanny). The scenes and camera shots were absolutely stunning. And what made them even better and heighten their effect was the score.
Quick story, this movie was recommended to me by a friend and he’s a music buff so the first thing he said was something along the lines of “the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson and the piece by Max Richter make it worth while.” Now unlike him, I’m no musical expert; but I LOVED the score, especially the Richter piece. It complemented the cinematography beautifully, it was soft and serene at times but other times it was powerful and droning. It had an almost hypnotizing effect on me. I was transfixed on the screen in awe and felt a surge of emotions. My chest was swelling with feelings, feelings that I didn’t understand but conveyed something about the movie. It’s honestly hard to describe, but it just created a strange connection, a sort of empathy mixed with sadness, but a sweet, not soul crushing, sadness. It might be the alien effect, who knows.
Another great thing about the movie was it’s plot. A traditional sci-fi alien movie would be something like this: aliens come to Earth, they turn out to be monsters that want to destroy the Earth, humanity is in peril, everyone goes to war. There are variations but the main idea is that the aliens are hostile invaders and we have to fight back. Arrival was different, it was about communicating with the aliens, there is an element of war and hostility but that is used in a creative way-to highlight how flawed and even violent humans are. It’s about empathy and acceptance, appreciating difference and using diversity to advance our race and not in the “checklist” tokenizing lame way, but more profound. It couldn’t have been more timely.
And then instead of focusing on the demise of humanity it explores how we can accept our fate in hopeful way, I don’t want to give up too much of the movie but I’ll say that it was sad, yet hopeful and beautiful in a non-cheesy, genuine way.
The movie also does a great thing where it experiments with time travel and plot twists, and again, I won’t say much about it because spoiling it would be a crime, but it’s not something that I’ve seen before. It explores the idea of time in a fascinating way.
Now the nerd side of me wants to point out two things: a) I thought it was awesome that the protagonist was a linguist. Because let’s be honest, the real heroes and geniuses of the world are the people in the humanities, not that I’m biased…. But for reals, it was refreshing to see a linguist be the hero, an ordinary (well extraordinary really) college professor was able to beat the superheroes, the army, AND the STEM people. Now that’s real power.
However, as satisfying and gratifying as it was, the main idea of the movie is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity: the idea that our perception of the world is (significantly) shaped by our language, that the way we speak affects the way we (literally) see the world. Sure there is some truth to that hypothesis, but it’s been debunked by many linguists, including John McWhorter. Now had I not known about this I would’ve enjoyed the movie ten times more because I personally find that idea of linguistic relativity fascinating; but sadly the lecture I heard by McWhorter is still fresh in my mind and kept pooping on my Arrival parade. I guess getting a linguistic theory right would be too much to ask of Hollywood, but they did make an effort and that’s laudable. Yeah?
The other thing that I wasn’t too happy about with the movie is the fact that they rushed through the whole decoding process. When Dr. Banks was trying to decode Heptapod’s language, they produce a “training montage” of some sort: just quickly rushing through different scenes of her doing different linguist-y things and then she cracks the code. Although it wasn’t bad, I would’ve preferred it had they slowed down during the decoding and show us Banks’ frustration and attempts at processing the language. I think by slowing that sequence down it would fit more with the whole mood of the movie.
The acting was decent, I think the only “star” was Amy Adams. You don’t need me to tell you how great she is, her face speaks volumes. I mean, the look in her eye just makes you feel all those emotions. She was fantastic in every scene. The other actors, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, etc.. eh, they were okay but weren’t exceptional in any way, it was just alright you know?
Overall the movie was fantastic. Arrival was every humanist sci-fi nerd’s dream come true. The cinematography and music were great, the plot was original, the acting was good, it’s perfect. I left the movie feeling all sorts of emotions and honestly somewhat sad. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a lot of things *insert Crowley “FEELINGS” gif*. Definitely worth a watch, even if you’re not into sci-fi or aliens, watch it because this is easily one of the best, if not the best, movies of 2016.