In “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve Delivers a New Hard Science Fiction Touchstone

In Denis Villeneuve’s high-concept science fiction film Arrival, the expert director deftly explores a profoundly different view of reality – all in the guise of an alien invasion story.  Based on the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the story is hard science fiction at its greatest, and ponders the challenge and ramifications of communicating with an alien species during first contact.  In what has become a hallmark of Villeneuve’s style, the film boasts a fascinating non-linear storytelling technique that factors heavily into the plot.  Though there are really only four characters of note, each is ably performed by an outstanding actor, with Amy Adams’s performance shining through as something special.  This film takes advantage of its genre perfectly, altering a single idea about language and contemplating the potential ramifications.  It seems as though Denis Villeneuve has been working in science fiction for his entire career; his treatment of Arrival is a deft exploration of the nature of time, language, and communication – both between humans and aliens, and humans and each other.

Arrival begins by revealing the main protagonist, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams).  We are treated to some contextual background for her character, after which 12 alien ships land all around Earth in no discernible pattern.  Louise is conscripted by the US military to communicate with the aliens, which are known as “heptapods” (seven-footed).  While she is working hard at the Montana site with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), other countries around the world are trying to do the same with the ships that landed in their own back yards.  Amid the intellectual work, governments are also struggling to calm their citizenry, which has buckled under the uncertainty and fear which would accompany such direct First Contact.  Louise and Ian’s job is explicit:  learn enough to communicate a question to the heptapods:  “What is your purpose on Earth?”

Throughout this story, one marvels at Villeneuve’s restraint and the corresponding tension that it generates.  For a film ostensibly about translation, communication, and physics, your heart pounds in your throat surprisingly often.  Villeneuve hesitates when supplying visuals to the audience.  We learn about the “invasion” when news alerts chime from the phones of the half dozen students who attend Louise’s class and they request for her to turn on the TV.  Then, we don’t even see the actual coverage; we hear it and read the reaction from their faces.  Though the ships land immediately, we don’t see them until Louise and Ian travel to the site.  Villeneuve’s patience is similarly on display during the first session with the aliens.  It is a long, slow, tense build-up to the reveal of the heptapods.  They are fundamentally alien in nature, without a speck of the humanoid construction that we so often see.  They look perfect.

I’ve mentioned a non-linear quality to the plot.  In Arrival,  the basic thrust of the story is linear, but it is interspersed with a complicated series of visions.  Within the film, these begin as a way to provide emotional context for some of the characters, but morph into something quite different by the end of the story.  This structure is absolutely brilliant, and is a particular strength of Villeneuve’s.  If you’ve seen his other films, you’ll know most employ this technique in some way or fashion, but Arrival necessitates it.  Those who have seen the film will know why (and I’ll further explore this idea later in a spoiler section).

For such a big-budget blockbuster, you may be surprised to learn that there are really only four characters in Arrival that matterThe film focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner),  Colonel Weber  (Forest Whitaker), and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg).  There are other characters in the movie, of course, but they do almost nothing compared to these four.  These performances are all top-notch, and even if you don’t agree with the actions they are taking, you can understand where they are coming from, even the jerk Halpern who seems like a particularly gung-ho dullard.

One has to appreciate the amount of value that Villeneuve extracts from the genre of science fiction as well.  Science fiction has long been a genre which provides a mechanism for exploring a concept to the N­­th degree – and Arrival certainly does that.  The strength of science fiction is its ability to elucidate complex concepts through a narrative by pondering alterations to the reality that we are familiar with.  For example, The Matrix wonders at a world where AI has run rampant, whereas Firefly posits about the fringe elements that would develop when space travel become mundane.

In Arrival, the alteration is based upon a hypothesis about language called linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This theory hypothesizes that the structure of a language determines the way that a user of that language views reality.  Obviously, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was conceived with regards to the minute differences that distinct human languages may confer on their speakers.  But here, the power of the science fiction genre is fully realized:  in Arrival, we explore a truly alien language that is different from all human language in a way that fundamentally alters the way the heptapods view reality.  There are actually two distinct forms of the heptapod language, one spoken and one written (called “heptapod A” and “heptapod B”), but we mostly deal with the written version, which is free-form and radial:

heptapodb
An example of Heptapod B, the written language of the aliens

This is heady stuff, but it is perfectly married with the themes that Villeneuve is intent on exploring with Arrival.  Through this lens, the film explores concepts like the perception of time and reality, how language affects the way that a conscious being thinks, and the tendency of humanity to default to fear and protectionism when confronted with something we cannot understand.

An alien first contact is an ideal way to explore ideas of language and communication (which is so rarely done in stories with aliens), but also a great way to ponder our collective response to such an event.  Villeneuve places many of these ideas in the background, as the 24-hour news cycle vainly grasps for some straw of explanation and peoples around the world react with knee-jerk fear in increasingly severe fashion.  It’s a powerful technique, and a beautiful piece of film-making.

And now, it is time for an inevitable truth:  the ideas explored in Arrival necessitate spoiling of the plot in its entirety, including what would be considered by many to be a “twist”.  If you have seen the flick OR want to go in knowing some of the crucial ideas Chiang and Villeneuve are exploring, then please read on.  If not, bail now with the knowledge that it is my opinion that you definitely should see Arrival at your earliest convenience, and then you can come back to Plot and Theme.  You have been warned.  You may also jump ahead to the concluding paragraph, which is spoiler-free, and clearly marked.

SPOILERS


The crucial breakthrough that Louise makes is that the heptapod language is outside of time.  Their language is so complex, that one must know how to write the ending of a sentence before one even begins, or the meaning will be altered irrevocably.  Essentially, this means that they see reality as occurring without a linear conception of time.  Their “purpose” on Earth is to give us this language so as to confer their ability to see through time to humanity.  They want to allow us to see reality as they do because in 3000 years they will need our help for something.  Louise learns this during a direct conversation with one of the heptapods, but it is the realization that by thinking in their language she is beginning to perceive the future of her own life that it all clicks for her.

She now sees all events in time as happening simultaneously, without a true cause-and-effect relationship.  It is not linear, but a pervasive truth always occurring.  The reveal that Louise’s visions of the girl are not flashbacks – but flash forwards, is absolutely gut-wrenching, and perfectly executed by Villeneuve and Adam’s line reading of, “Who is this child, I don’t understand.” Once she does understand, Louise is equipped with the power of seeing time as the heptapods do – simultaneously.  Hence, she can talk to the Chinese General across time and alter the present with knowledge from the future.

In this paradigm, there isn’t direct causality, or anything for Louise to change about the future that she now knows – it is ever-present.  It is a given, it is predetermined.  As a corollary, this worldview purports that there is no true free will, that we exist in a deterministic universe where that which occurs simply is, and our only choice is to not change things. In effect, the way that we perceive the world in a linear fashion creates the illusion that there is cause-and-effect and choice.  I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation of reality, but in a world where aliens visited Earth, taught us their language, and then we began to perceive time in a novel way, I’d probably alter my opinion.

This is the unrelenting beauty of science fiction – it can introduce us to worlds that are fundamentally different from our own.  Whether that means sentient robots, murderous xenomorphs, or an alien language which unlocks the secrets of space-time, this is a genre that consistently dares to ask what humanity would be like given a specific change.  And in that change, we are able to further explore ourselves as we are.

Yes, the moment that Ian asks Louise, “You want to make a baby”, she knows that the baby they make will grow up, ask questions, and eventually die of a rare disease, the knowledge of which effects the breakdown of the relationship between Louise and Ian.  Despite the tragedies both small and large, Louise knows that all that will happen has its little glories, and that she will be fortunate to experience them.  In Villeneuve’s world of heptapods, The Story of Your Life is already written, but it is still worth experiencing in full.

SPOILERS HAVE CONCLUDED, THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMPLIANCE


Arrival is a modern science fiction masterpiece.  Villeneuve capitalizes on the strengths of the genre to develop fascinating thematic ideas, and brilliantly uses all the tricks in the cinematic bag to explore the ramifications of these ideas.  Thus, while not a single phaser is fired or building exploded throughout the entirety of Arrival, it is far more intriguing that any space opera, dinosaur-laden monster movie, or comic book adaptation.  The film is a new touchstone for the genre, upon which future films will inevitably be compared and judged.

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