Reviewed by Matthew Gilbert
“Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”
Promoted as a “thinking person’s” sci-fi movie (meaning the absence of laser battles, exploding planets, and other graphic excess), Arrival is adapted from the 2000 Nebula-winning short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (who has received nearly a dozen major awards for his daring and inventive short fiction). The mood is eerie and haunting as a dozen massive obelisks show up simultaneously in different parts of the world, hovering mere feet above the earth’s surface. No one knows why they’re here or what they want, and it’s up to an affected linguist played by Amy Adams (and a left-brained physicist played by Jeremy Renner) to find out, working against time as global fear ripens and begins to explode.
Unlike most sci-fi narratives, the mystery of the aliens’ arrival (they are given the name Heptapods) unfolds slowly. The puzzle pieces come in bits and pieces as you would expect when confronting such an enormous challenge – communicating not just across cultures but galactic expanses. Early in the film Adams starts having flashbacks of her daughter, a loving relationship that tragically ends with the child dying from an unnamed disease. We are made to believe that this has already happened, but has it? In the spirit of Inception, Source Code, and Matrix, the metaphysics of Arrival has stirred up its own memes of inquiry about time, memory, and the way we define and interpret reality. All of this plays out in the nuanced evolution of Adam’s character as she slowly starts to “grok” (see Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein) the mysterious architecture of the aliens’ language. Her transformation is subtle but unmistakable as the foundations of her belief system slowly give way under the weight of her discoveries.
It turns out that how we think matters – literally. The languages we use to perceive and interpret our world are shaped by our beliefs about it, a cycle that self-reinforces. This is obviously helpful in matters of basic communication within our tribes, but how about between tribes or even on the simplest interpersonal level, where the way we experience the world often limits our ability to understand the realities of others? Any awkward first dates come to mind? On a grander scale, what happens when the world starts to unhinge and the only solution is to find what connects us instead of what separates us? The arrival of the Heptapods comes at a time when the world is already is disarray – their presence merely brings those tensions closer to the surface.
Once contact is established, the team finds a way to begin a conversation. The aliens respond by imprinting elegant, circular, calligraphic symbols on a transparent surface, the ensō-like artistry of which ultimately belies a breathless mathematical and conceptual complexity that Adams and Renner (a likeable actor who is more of a cipher in this film) need to figure out. Their success in doing so – to see the world as the aliens do (and to consequently translate that experience) – is central to the purpose of their visit and to humankind’s very survival.
Late in the film, as the clock ticks and fears rise, the team translates a fragment of the Heptapod communication as “There is no time,” which unleashes another, and perhaps final, wave of panic to what is perceived as an ultimatum. Military forces gather and conflagration looms. But that’s the thing with language: It comes in nearly infinite shapes and sizes with meanings and symbols that say nothing until the code is cracked. In this case, the aliens’ experience of “time” – or, more specifically, its nonlinearity – circles back to Adams’ “flights of memory.” Her discovery of that fluidity is the key missing link to understanding the visitors’ intent and averting catastrophe.
The movie isn’t perfect. There are some directorial sleight-of-hands and unnecessary distractions to throw us off the scent or cater to convention, and the romance lacks heat, but ultimately these are quibbles. The first-contact scenes are mesmerizing and the aliens themselves are truly other-worldly. The reflective mirror of language, the relativity of time, and the intimacy of memory add philosophical weight to a mystery that delivers a powerful message about the danger of belief systems and the potential – nay, the need – to overcome them.
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Matthew Gilbert is founder/curator of Cinema Noesis: Films for Evolving Minds, a website dedicated to reviewing new and recent movies, both mainstream and independent, that will change the way you see yourself or the world around you.