Arrival is the riveting, slow-burn story of an alien encounter that’s satisfyingly complex. Instead of showing how we blow up the buggers, this movie poses a difficult question: how would we communicate with seemingly peaceful aliens whose language is as impenetrable as whalesong? The welcome surprise is that Arrival explores the answers without shying away from the reality of how linguistics work, as well as the geopolitical consequences of first contact.
Louise (Amy Adams) is a gifted linguistics professor who has done some spot work for the government translating videos made by foreign insurgents. As the film opens, her quiet classroom life is disrupted permanently when a dozen enormous spaceships materialize over seemingly random regions across the world. Made of no materials we recognize, and emitting no chemical signatures whatsoever, the ships hover like perfectly curved stones just above the ground. Twice per day, an opening appears in the bottom of each ship, admitting humans into the gravitationally bizarre interior to meet with squidlike aliens who hover in what seems to be an atmosphere chamber behind a transparent barrier.
Dubbed heptapods for their five legs, the aliens make noises that are completely incomprehensible. When military officer Weber (Forest Whitaker) plays a recording of one to Louise, demanding a translation, she can’t even figure out what kind of organ could produce the noises. “Do they have… mouths?” she asks, bewildered. Despite her initial confusion, Louise manages to crack the alien code by using writing to communicate with them rather than speech.
And this is where the movie goes from pretty good to superlative. We watch as Louise and her colleagues—including astronomer Ian (Jeremy Renner)—decode the heptapods’ writing using data analysis. Each heptapod “word” is actually a sentence with neither a beginning nor an ending, squirted out of the aliens’ fingers like squid ink into graceful circular shapes whose squiggly contours are units of meaning. Ultimately Louise realizes that this writing system reflects the way the heptapods view time itself as a non-linear experience.
What makes this movie a science adventure on the order of The Martian is the fact that it all hinges on the subtleties of translation. Linguistics are key to the action. When humans across the globe finally know enough heptapod language to ask the aliens why they’ve come to Earth, the answer is a blobby ring of a sentence that’s very difficult to interpret. Is it a promise of danger? Of friendship? Or something so alien that we can’t really know? Each country comes to its own conclusions, and global tensions mount.
Louise and Ian are stuck in a situation familiar to many scientists and engineers, as they try to convince their military cohorts to accept that their findings aren’t simple. They need more data to get answers, and of course language is one of the most ambiguous data sources you can imagine. This ultimately becomes one of the larger themes of the movie, which pulses with images of people trying to communicate. State leaders can barely collaborate on the heptapod project via video conference; political pundits on YouTube spew misinformation to rile up citizens with tales of alien conspiracies; and the scientists themselves get very little air time to explain their complex findings. It turns out that communicating with creatures from another world may actually be easier than communicating with other human beings.
What makes this story so satisfying, however, is that it isn’t solely about a global crisis. It’s also a very personal story about how Louise’s consciousness changes as she learns the heptapod language. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis predicts, speaking a new language can literally rewire your brain. The film explores this idea by giving Louise visions of a mysterious little girl, whose presence becomes more urgent the more Louise thinks in heptapod. Her translations stand to change both her intimate life and the entire planet, and it’s moving to watch her coming to terms with this.
Based on a short story by award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang, Arrival is true to its source material while also building in a few new plotlines that complement the original work. What endures from Chiang’s haunting “Story of Your Life” is Louise’s transforming consciousness and the idea that communication is the most difficult science of all. At a time when alien encounter movies are often VFX-laden blockbusters or mindless war stories, it’s incredibly refreshing to see an original story like this one.
In many ways, Arrival is a worthy inheritor of the vision offered in the still-breathtaking 1950s movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Like that film, Arrival gives us minimalist alien ships that feel genuinely futuristic. It also carries the same message of human redemption, enabled partly by ultra-powerful, cautiously benevolent brethren from space. And instead of exploring dystopia, like so many other thoughtful science fiction movies, it champions the idea that science and rationality will save us from our worst instincts.
The difficult truth about first contact is that it will change humanity in ways we can’t predict. And, frustratingly, we may never understand the aliens whom we encounter simply because the gulf between us is too great. Instead of offering pat solutions to these conundrums, Arrival has the gumption to suggest that maybe we can muddle through without knowing everything. Maybe, even if our translations aren’t perfect, we can learn to overcome the barriers between Earthly cultures, too.
If you like a suspenseful tale that’s both action-packed and thought-provoking, Arrival is exactly the right movie for you this weekend.