By Gabriel Renggli
The number one priority, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) explains, is learning why they are here. The problem with that, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) explains, is knowing whether we are capable of asking the question, whether they are capable of understanding it, and whether we are capable of processing a potential answer.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that how you see the world depends on the language you use. I’m not a linguist myself (my speciality is literature), but I’m an intuitive believer in at least a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I know from experience that I think and act differently in English than in my native language. By the end, Arrival will have asked you to accept a very strong version indeed of this idea: our physical reality itself is structured by how we speak.
The reason this rather large claim does not fall flat on its face is that Arrival is so well made. This is captivating film-making, employing a simple three-act structure to stunning effect. The first act is more or less taken up by establishing the stakes, and they are high. Aliens land on earth, twelve crafts scattered over the globe in no discernible pattern. What follows is, in a way, pretty formulaic. Yes, we focus largely on the American landing site; yes, the military rushes in to cordon off the ship; yes, they soon helicopter in a number of experts. Godzilla films use that structure. But director Denis Villeneuve’s film-making is delicate, alert to the significance of the events.
We first learn what happened when Banks interrupts her lecture to turn on the news. Watching the images, the faces of her students show distress, perhaps disbelief. Then the building’s alarm goes off; the entire university is being evacuated. Villeneuve brilliantly captures the mixture of fear and a sort of desperate, tense clinging to routine that ensues. On the way home, Banks has a phone conversation with her mother: “I don’t know, mum, I’m watching the same coverage you are.” The mundanity provides the contrast that brings out the hugeness of what is taking place.
The slow build-up continues, and there is a scene of Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) putting on contamination suits that, I felt, deliberately went on too long, provoking the characters’ impatience in the audience, and implicitly criticising the sort of science-fiction that skips all the science. The problem is not what size gun to bring, it’s that we don’t know exactly what the atmosphere inside the ship is like. Then comes the first massive payoff: midway through the spaceship’s entrance, gravity flips 90 degrees. And although, these days, we hardly even blink when Inception folds an entire city, this moment has impact because Villeneuve prepared it by making us believe in these people. So Donnelly’s reaction does not come across as another line-read, it expresses the amazement we ourselves feel: these creatures’ entrance hall does away with a law of nature that we have lived by during the entire history of our species. What is their living room going to be like?
The answer is that their living room looks somewhat like a cave designed by the people who came up with the first iPod: sleek and black with a bit of white glow thrown in. Arrival is awe-inspiring, but mostly so through story-telling, acting, and music. Visually, I thought it somewhat underwhelming, and that does not end with the interior of the spaceship. It might just be my major disappointment with this film that it ignores the lesson taught by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and actually shows the aliens. They look the way CGI aliens tend to look. Around this point, I began asking myself whether this is another one of those films that cannot deliver what they are building up to. After all, the makers of Arrival did not actually get to exchange views with an alien race, so any answers on offer will just be clever presentations of earthly thought. After seeing the first third of this film, that is bound to be a let-down, is it not? Fortunately, Arrival knows that the questions are more interesting than the answers.
The second act contains some problematic moments as well when Banks and Donnelly start communicating with the aliens. For a film focusing on the difficulties of crossing the boundaries of your perspective, Arrival is fairly quick to assume that the aliens will know to watch what these scientists are doing and then provide them with the alien word for that activity or thing. Never mind, they manipulate gravity and have crossed interstellar distances to reach us—along with some other amazing abilities the film shows later on—it is probably safe to say they are pretty clever. And then comes the third act, and it is in equal parts mind-bending and emotionally gripping. (Speaking of things Interstellar, that film’s ending is probably a good way of gauging whether you will find the last part of Arrival to be highly stimulating cinema or self-indulgent nebulousness). The real issue isn’t even the aliens’ reason for coming to earth, which is eventually revealed and is almost laughably banal. But their presence among humans forces some of these humans to face questions about their lives that cut deep, and it is here that Arrival truly delivers.
All this time you thought you are watching a film about aliens. You will leave the cinema discussing, or thinking, about how language structures our realities, about our capacity for connection and empathy, about how we attribute meaning to our experiences, even about the different ways in which we attribute meaning to life itself. That sounds like a very tall order: the achievement of Arrival is that it knows how to ask these questions and then refrain from attempting an answer. It will get you talking.