What Can We Say to One Another? A Review of Arrival

By PhilRM: NB: Since a film must stand on its own, I make no comparisons to Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” which was the basis for the screenplay. Also, this review contains no spoilers (I hope) beyond material that appears in the trailers or the first few minutes of the film.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a large swath of cinematic science fiction is a gross insult to the literary genre from which it supposedly derives. Ideas and intelligence are jettisoned in favor of special effects, which become ends in themselves; aliens arrive only to ravish our planet, or to exterminate us, and if they communicate at all, the only thing they wish to tell us is “Die.”

Now we have Arrival, a film by Denis Villeneuve based on an acclaimed short story by the equally acclaimed science fiction writer Ted Chiang. In presenting an almost literal embodiment of Margaret Atwood’s contemptuous dismissal of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space,” Arrival shows just how shallow and uninformed that judgement was.

Arrival opens with a voice-over narration by Amy Adams (as linguist Louise Banks) over a wrenching montage of her daughter Hannah growing up only to die (apparently of cancer) as an adolescent. When next we see Banks, she is beginning a lecture to a nearly empty room – empty because twelve alien spaceships have just parked themselves at various locations around the Earth. As an expert linguist, Banks is called in by the US government and transported to Montana, where the alien ship hovers eerily above the landscape. Every eighteen hours, the ship opens to admit humans for a two-hour period; it is during these brief windows that Banks must try to decipher the alien (they have seven limbs) language, with the aid of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Arrival is visually stunning, as is apparent from Banks’ first view of the encampment adjacent to the alien ship. The on-board space in which the humans and aliens face one another is intentionally theatrical, the humans on a stage, the aliens behind a glass wall like a gigantic movie screen, with both groups enacting rituals of communication in an attempt to breach that barrier. But Arrival has an intelligence to match its visual splendor: this is a movie that is not hesitant about having a character lecture the rest of the cast (and the audience) as to how much underlies even an apparently simple sentence, such as “What are your intentions?” The alien language is radically different from terrestrial languages, and a central underpinning of the movie is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that the language in which you think affects both how your brain works and the concepts that you are capable of understanding. (No linguists or neuroscientists actually subscribe to anything resembling this strong form of the S-W hypothesis any longer, as far as I know). There is a brilliant throwaway bit about how different communications modalities might lead the aliens to completely different conceptions of humanity. In an immensely refreshing change from the usual idiotic Hollywood treatment of science, in which “scientist” is a catch-all category and the norm is to be an archaeologist/neuroscientist/underwear model, Banks is a linguist and Donnelly is a physicist, with completely different skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

With twelve diverse nations all attempting desperately to determine why the aliens are here, in an atmosphere of growing fear and paranoia concerning the aliens’ intent, there is a pointed contrast between the efforts of the stressed, exhausted Banks/Donnelly team to communicate with the aliens and the growing suspicion of any international communication among the scientists as tantamount to betrayal. While the accelerating and increasingly fractured narrative stretches the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (and the laws of physics) somewhat beyond the bounds of plausibility, it does so in the service of an emotional climax that totally reorients the structure of the film, and the realization that the question that it wants to answer is completely different from what you thought it was.

The whole cast is first-rate (it’s too bad there wasn’t room for more Forest Whitaker), but credit above all has to go to Amy Adams, who is simply fantastic in the central role.

Rating: Seven limbs up.

13 thoughts on “What Can We Say to One Another? A Review of Arrival

  1. This is a really good review. Not just a recap. No spoilers, but very informative about the movie. Good job, Phil RM!

  2. I’m probably missing some context, but to me the Atwood comment came out of left field. I don’t understand what it’s doing there. It threw me right out of the review.

  3. The Atwood comment is a fairly-well-known, notorious put-down of SF; his point is that this movie is exactly what she was dismissing, and yet it’s wonderful anyway.

    It might have been better worded as “In presenting an almost literal embodiment of what Margaret Atwood contemptuously dismissed as”, but I got what he was trying to say.

  4. @PhilRM

    A very well written review! It leaves me intrigued and looking forward to watching the movie. Thanks for putting it together!

  5. An ideal review. Concise but informative. In contrast to reviews that ramble on with “I felt” and “It seemed like” and “I wish they had”.

  6. Just to clarify, this movie is not based on the novel of the same name by A.G. Riddle, which came out during the summer and which was featured on File 770 a few days ago.

  7. Nice review of a really excellent movie.

    One side comment that I’ve kind of wanted to make to everyone who’s reviewed the movie or the story: I get why any reference to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis calls for an immediate disclaimer of “scientists don’t think this is literally true”, but in this particular story I think that’s pointless. It’s perfectly sensible to posit that it’s not true for human languages because they’re similar enough to each other on a fundamental level that you’re not really learning a different mode of thought, whereas an alien language really might require you to process information differently than any human being had ever done. I mean, whether that’s even possible is another question, but it can’t be proven false by looking at what happens with human languages. It’s a SF concept you have to address on its own terms, like FTL travel, and the Sapir-Whorf reference is just a handy loose metaphor to get the idea across.

  8. Excellent review.

    (Me? I’ve put off seeing the movie, waiting for my kid to come home from college to see it with me.)

    Now it occurs to me that what the world needs RIGHT NOW is a second collection of Ted Chiang stories.

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