Arrival: Who Knew a Movie About Alien Linguistics Would Cut So Deep?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival isn’t your typical sci-fi. Yes, it has the striking visuals of aliens and their ships (on a fairly modest $50 million budget, I might add) and a truly unnerving yet gorgeous score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything, Sicario), but it’s less focused on the “wow factor” of science fiction. Instead, it chooses to be a deep and devastating story about life and human connection. And throughout all of it, it examines the role language plays in those moments.

The trailer doesn’t tell you much about the plot, so let’s do a quick rundown. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams)—a brilliant linguist who’s worked with intelligence agencies to stop terrorism—is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to assist the U.S. military in communicating with one of 12 alien ships that’s landed throughout the world. Working closely with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise makes contact with the aliens (called heptapods) and studies their complex language to ultimately understand their purpose for coming to Earth and prevent a global war.

Now, what the trailer doesn’t tell you is that the movie opens with Louise’s monologue directed toward her daughter Hannah, who we see at various ages through a series of flashbacks. We learn that not only did Louise’s husband/Hannah’s father leave, but that Hannah also died at a young age (from what I’m assuming is either cancer or leukemia). It’s a personal tragedy that sets the tone for the movie and connects us instantly with the main character.

Except Louise’s personal tragedy gets turned on its head. In fact, it’s central to the movie’s big reveal. After working tirelessly with the heptapods to understand their purpose, Louise learns they came to deliver a tool/weapon/gift—the perception of a world without the constraints of time, which they bestow upon Louise to not only prevent the aforementioned global war, but to also one day save them in return (though that’s left vague and ominous).

Movie still from Arrival (2016)

Why is this important? Because it suddenly takes what we believe is a tragic past and shows us that it’s actually in Louise’s future. As in, Louise connecting with the heptapods is happening in the current time, and she’s seeing her child’s life and death in her future (though, technically, she’s seeing all of the moments of her life concurrently). YEAH. It’s not far from the time dilation discussions from Interstellar or the sequence in Watchmen where Dr. Manhattan explains how he sees every moment of time at once.

It’s beautiful, too, because it makes the movie’s editing more brilliant from a narrative standpoint. Considering that time isn’t linear and that the movie is working within a linear plane, it means that the flashbacks weren’t actually flashbacks—they’re Louise’s visions of all the moments in her life. Seriously, I can’t get over how cool it is that a plot twist takes what would be meh editing and convenient storytelling and suddenly gives everything a purpose.

Of course, the movie’s not perfect. The CGI in certain moments does come across as cheesy (I repeat, $50 million budget). And there’s the issue of the convenient storytelling, which does get fixed with the turning point, but still…it’s hard not to roll your eyes when a character solves a complex problem simply by remembering something someone once said (Remember how Dr. House used to figure out incredibly rare diseases just by talking to someone who delivered the perfect line to give him the idea? Yeah, like that).

But this slow-burn movie, even with its faults, has so much to offer. I feel as though I need to watch it at least five times to truly pick up on all of the intricacies and nuances in both the visuals and dialogue. This movie is a goddamn onion. And I mean that in the sense that it has a ton of layers…and that it might make you cry.

Arrival: A-

Listen to my review of Arrival on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 36:55).

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