Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was released 5 years ago, on November 11, 2016 (you may remember something else that happened in November 2016). Produced for a relatively meager $47 million (for a studio sci-fi film at least) and based on an obscure short story that hardly qualifies as IP, Arrival became an instant hit, grossing over $200 million worldwide and scoring eight Oscar nominations, including Picture and Director, an extremely rare feat for an original sci-fi concept.
In the years since, it’s proven to be a modern sci-fi classic, showing up on numerous best-of-the-decade lists and launching Villeneuve into the stratosphere, sending him into the IP-verse with Blade Runner 2049, and ultimately a little recently released film you may have heard of called Dune. This success isn’t incredibly surprising, as the movie has a lot to recommend it. It received a deserved Academy Award win for its incredibly evocative sound, and nominations for its hauntingly effective production design and its stunningly simple cinematography. The creature design for the seven-legged aliens is somehow unlike any alien design we’d seen before or since, yet oddly perfect. The score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, deemed ineligible by the academy, is perfectly aggressive when it should be, and delicate when it needs to be. And of course, Villeneuve’s direction is superb, and Adams gives one of the strongest performances of her career (her snub at the Oscars ages more and more poorly every day). But what surprised me the most about the movie’s rapid ascension to iconic status is my own appetite for returning to it – including a rewatch for this article. In the 5 years since its release, I have now seen Arrival a total of four times. As someone who struggles with the phenomenon of rewatching, I can probably count the number of films I’ve seen more than twice on one hand. I love movies, and nothing is more thrilling to me than finding a film I love, but I then find myself constantly drawn to the thing I haven’t seen, the story that still might surprise me. Because after all, when you know not only how the story ends, but how we get there, isn’t the thrill just a little bit gone? So, what is it about Arrival that, despite its somber tone, dense linguistic philosophizing, and especially with its emotional twist, makes it so effective as a rewatchable? I’d argue it’s because that’s what it’s all about. Arrival raises a lot of questions over its 116 minutes, many of them incredibly timely (which I will get into), but when it all comes down to it the one thing the film really wants to ask us about how we live our lives is; if you knew how it was going to end, would you do it anyway?
On paper, Arrival tells a story not unlike hundreds that have been told before; a mysterious alien race arrives on planet earth, their motives and intentions unknown, and it is up to some brave movie star to either befriend the extra-terrestrials or save humanity from them. But what makes Villeneuve’s film stand out is the way it approaches what “saving the day” really means. Might these aliens be enemies to be defeated? Perhaps. Might they be a friend that will take us on a wild adventure? That may be true too. But how exactly are we going to figure that out? Well, by talking to them of course.
Arrival focuses on Amy Adams’ Louise Banks, a renowned linguistics professor with a history of helping the government out with translating tricky communications. When our story begins, before we get to the aliens, we hear Adams’ beautifully touching voiceover telling her daughter the story of her life (the original Ted Chiang short story is titled “Story of Your Life”), and we only have a hint of where it’s going to go. We see glimpses of Louise’s life with her daughter, and we pick up on some clear facts; Louise loves her daughter, one day that daughter will get sick, and one day she will ultimately die. After this prologue we launch into the day “they arrived”, and we begin a story, or rather a couple stories we think we know; the mourning mother, ignoring her grief by diving headfirst into work. The scientific expert brought in to communicate with these extraterrestrial visitors, the Heptapods. Very shortly after 12 mysterious UFOs arrive at random places across the globe, Louise is approached by old government contacts with a request; translating the language, if it could even be called that, of this alien species.
We think we know where this story is going, even more so when Louise meets the ying to her yang, the theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (played by an oddly smarmy Jeremy Renner), who strangely negs Louise at their first meeting about the importance of science vs. language as the basis of humanity. Their growing relationship is the one weak spot of the film, but one guesses who will be proven correct in their debate, and for the most part we would be correct. The requisite butting of heads with the military suits ensues, as Louise must argue in favor of simply talking to the aliens rather than constantly being prepared for a military strike. Just as Sam Worthington’s Jake in Avatar and Mel Gibson’s John Smith did in Pocahontas and countless others did in stories before those, Louise must be the virtuous hero that will understand the “other” much more than the small-minded bureaucrats around her. As Louise’s understanding of the Heptapods, as they come to be called, increases, so does her intimacy with Ian, and the frequency of her memories of her deceased daughter and their too short time together. It’s only as we get deeper into the Heptapods language, just as Louise does, that we start to see the wrinkles in the story.
What this movie really understands is the way that language dictates not just how we speak, but how we think, and Arrival probes this question a lot (even literalizing it by bringing up something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which essentially says just that). The scenes where Louise breaks down the nuances and complexities of language are as simple as a woman standing at a white board but are some of the most thrilling in the movie, as she explains things we intrinsically understand, but could never put into words. There are eerily prescient scenes of soldiers listening to right wing radio hosts as they lambast the weak government for not using strong enough force against these invaders; does the violence of that language have anything to do with a violent act that soldier may later commit? It’s not hard to draw that conclusion. When Louise figures out that the Chinese government is using mahjong tiles to communicate with the aliens, she points out the danger of using a game as your mode of dialogue – if the only way you can speak to each other is through competition, eventually someone is going to have to win and someone is going to have to lose. The film also seems to say, without saying it, that our stories move in the direction we speak, and so we watch this film in the only language we know. So as Louise, and by extension, the audience, immerses herself further and further in the language of this alien species, the story starts to turn into something else entirely, something, perhaps, “free of time.”
That is how the movie describes the alien language, free of time. They write complex sentences all in one gesture, as if “writing a sentence using two hands from either side.” Described as “semasiographic”, their language is not unlike sign language (or even as some scholars point out, emojis) as it’s a visual language that conveys meaning, rather than sound; but unlike any communications humans understand it does not move in any one direction. Freed from the need to see thought and time in a linear way, the Heptapods of Arrival see time not as a straight line, but more like a circle, with no beginning and no end. When you know where your thoughts begin and end all in one moment, the time in between will undoubtedly begin to feel a lot more… circular. They know not only the past, but they can see thousands of years into the future. And suddenly we learn, along with Louise, that this story is not being told as we’d thought, but that we’ve been “free of time” all along. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I will only say that what we thought was the beginning of this story was in fact the end, if those descriptors are even appropriate, and everything in between is just that, in between. We have been seeing time the way the aliens do, without a beginning or an end, and we’re all the richer for it.
That is why returning to Arrival again and again, even in times like these when every day can feel the same and we can feel desperate for something new, still brings such rewards; to know how it ends and how we get there is really only to know how it starts and where it goes, and to follow it on that journey is almost the point. And thankfully, Arrival has enough beauty and wonder inside that the journey, and enough to say about the world we live in, that it is well worth repeating. As Louise says herself, over the film’s stunning final montage; “Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”
In November 2016, we were in a very different world, to say the least. Arrival perhaps predicted a lot of the five years since in ways that no one would have expected when it hit theaters, and it still has a lot to say about the world we find ourselves in now; when talking to each other can seem like the hardest thing and we often find ourselves unable to agree on who is friend and who is foe. All of that is inside Arrival, and a lot more too, and I look forward to returning to it again and again to find all the things I haven’t yet seen inside it, as I’m sure many others will too. I know the journey, and I know where it leads, but with everything Arrival has to offer I embrace it, and I welcome every single moment of it.
Arrival was released by Paramount Pictures on November 11, 2016.
Photo: Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures