(2016, Denis Villeneuve)
[5 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of Roadshow Films]
There are three types of films I hold much admiration for, or respond strongly to. The first is the film that fills me with so much emotion, I feel that my body is unable to contain it. A heart-burst kind of movie. The second is the film that radically reshapes how you think movies should be in the way it is crafted. These are the successful formal experiments. And finally, the movie that feels like, just as you stand up in a theatre, the credits are rolling and then you walk outside in the brightness, you realise that a part of your brain has just been altered. ARRIVAL is all three of these movies. What a fitting title, Arrival. In such a dour year for the movies, and elsewhere, here comes something to reinvigorate a dampened, despondent mood.
Dr. Louisa Banks, played by Amy Adams in her best role in recent years, plays a linguistics expert tasked with translating communication between aliens. She is partnered with Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner and together they figure out why the aliens have arrived, specifically, finding out the purpose of their visit. The aliens arrive without warning in seed-like spaceships that land on various places around the world where they eerily hover a few metres above ground. Obviously, their technology is much more superior than ours but, as later revealed, they are much more advanced in so many other ways.
But before we meet the aliens, we are shown a montage much like the one in Pixar’s UP, this one telling the story between Dr. Banks and her daughter. The mother-daughter story is simple and familiar. It's a distillation of a life story told in brief, but moving strokes. It is not simply there to provide a backstory for the protagonist but it connects the entire story in a beautifully circular way. This microcosmic piece is webbed into the larger themes the movie delves into.
There is a theory mentioned by Dr. Banks called linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) which is the concept that a speaker’s language(s) affects their cognition, behaviour and perception of reality. A basic example is gendered nouns found in languages like German and French. Studies have shown that speakers who are fluent in these languages apply gendered qualities to objects. English speakers who don’t have gendered nouns embedded in their language usually don’t do this. This example refers to concrete nouns but it becomes interesting when abstract concepts such as emotion, space and time are involved. For example, a group of Australian Aboriginals who speak the language Kuuk Thaayorre experience space differently. Their language requires constant alignment with cardinal directions when describing space, so instead of an egocentric perception of space like English-speakers who use words like ‘left’ or ‘right’ to determine the location of a thing in relation to their own body, the Aboriginals locate based on the direction of their place in the land and not their bodies on its own. They say a thing is located ’southwest of your direction’ instead of say 'to the left behind you’, as English-speakers would.
It’s important to keep this theory in mind. Dr. Banks experience sensations and visions the more she learns about the alien’s language. The editing arranges her visions, memories, dreams, and her subconscious in a fluid way. Words, ideas, and situations meld into each other. Always linking, always connected - much like the alien language itself. Their written language consists of circular symbols that look like coffee cup stains with swirls and lines indicating different meanings. This is a reflection of the alien’s worldview. In Ted Chiang’s short story, ’Story of your life’ of which this movie is based on, Dr. Banks describes the difference between humans and the heptapods (the name assigned to the aliens):
As Dr. Banks begins to meld her human worldview with the alien’s it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between her subjective experiences and reality but their meaning is later revealed in, for a lack of a better word, a ‘reveal’. It’s a final act that is emotional and intellectually satisfying, providing an emotional closure while posing philosophical questions to ponder over afterward. The structure and pacing are deliberate. It all adds up at the end without being too neatly tied together. Villeneuve makes and constructs movies in a way that makes you wish you had a pause button. To briefly suspend the movie just to get your mind and emotions together. More so in these film, where the tenor of time is present in every frame and in the way they are arranged.
Sound also plays a key role in producing the mood of the film as well as creating a language on its own. There are moments when the subjective sound experienced by Dr. Banks permeates her present reality in a way that induces anxiety, curiosity, and bafflement. She begins to recall the sound of her memories and these deafen and overtake her present experience. The score by Johann Johannsson, hangs an otherworldly weight that hovers above the entire movie. It sometimes sounds like the call of the aliens, a deep, encompassing sound that could signal either danger or security. The alienness of this sound is evocative and sometimes confronting. It is as if what we are hearing is a language our brains cannot comprehend, or our ears can’t even completely receive in a way that we can understand - like a scrambled communication.
As Dr. Banks works to unscramble this language, she begins to understand who the aliens really are. Linguistic relativity posits the idea that we are what we speak and ARRIVAL presents a scenario where an alien arrival changes the way humans experience the universe. This is a brilliant and cerebral piece of science fiction. It changed the way I viewed communication and made me realise just how beautiful and deeply complex language is. I recommend you watch it more than once. You’ll see what I mean.