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.