It’s a long time since I wrote a film review adn that is partly because I’ve been too busy to watch many and those that I have seen, have not really been worth the effort to write about but Arrival is definitely something very different.
Last Sunday afternoon I had spent several hours of it watching the classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind film. I remember watching this when I was only 5 or 6 years old and I loved every moment of it, hundreds of times as my worn out video tape attested too. It’s such a beautiful film both in terms of cinematography, story and music and I could watch it any time. I thought it a shame that they make nothing similar these days.
Five days later, I noticed a poster for the film Arrival. It featured a spaceship over a field and that was all I needed to go and see it on opening day. I needed to get away from my computer, work and all that other stuff going in the world so with about six other people, found myself in a rather empty auditorium at 9.30am in the morning.
As I sat there in the dark waiting to get through all the advertisements for products and films that didn’t interest me in the least, it struck me how I was sitting all by myself. I have been coming to the same cinema for over 20 years and it often gnaws on me that many of those I have been to the cinema with in the past, are no longer here. I always have a bizarrely accurate sense of time and slightly etheral feelings of people being with me who aren’t physically present. Was I truly alone today, were the people I missed sitting alongside me this very moment but not on the same level or reality. I had a feeling they were and cursed that whatever other talents I have; like everyone else I am constrained by experiencing time in a linear fashion. Yes I have deep thoughts which is why I like deep movies, deep everything really. As it turned out, thus film was almost made just for me.
Please note this review includes spoilers as it is the concepts that in the film that make it so interesting to watch and discuss.
Arrival starts with a young mother and her little girl. We see the girl and mother share a number of loving moments as she grows up before tragically contracting a rare disease which medicine is unable to reverse and sadly she dies in hospital whilst still a teenager.
It is now the the present day and the state of Montana is thrown into shock when a large black vessel practically appears overhead in open farmland just north of Interstate 74. Very soon, we learn that there are 12 such craft that have appeared in very diverse nations from Devon in the UK to Venzuela, Pakistan, Sudan and even off the coast of Beijing in China. They craft take no hostile actions but similarly make no effort to communicate any intention whatsoever.
The film follows the language expert Louise Banks (the mother who lost her child), ably portrayed by Amy Adams, who is recruited by the United States military along with a mathematician and coding expert Ian Donnelly under an emergency team set up by Colonel Weber or Forest Whitaker.
Attempts at initial communication have got nowhere despite the military being able to access the alien ship once every 18 hours. After the briefest or introductions, Louise and Ian accompany the team to the alien ship which stands over 1500 feet tall and remains entirely motionless just 15 feet above the ground, emitting no noise, electrical or communicatve signals and for intents and purposes, appearing to be an entirely inanimate object.
The first entrance to ship is as interesting to us viewers as it is for Louise as the ship has zero gravity inside the entrance which quickly turns back into normal gravity, except the “down side” doesn’t match the outside world meaning that they jump off a platform and end up walking on the walls. A nice touch.
Arrival is shot simply but effectively and beautifully with very minimal special effects and rathe rminimal musice but that music and sound that we do here is highly atmospheric and it leads to a tense arrival as Louise sees the aliens for the first time, behind an invisible wall. All credit to the film-makers for making the aliens look alien. They sound alien too and Louise quickly comes to the belief that she will never be able to verbally reproduce their language, even if she could understand it.
Over the next hour or more the film, we see Louise and Ian make numerous entries over a month or so, trying to get to grips with the aliens. Louise has the idea of communicating visually using a whiteboard and incredibly the aliens respond. The Heptopods, so named due to them having 7 feet, seemingly understand English and respond in a somewhat beautiful and magical way, in a manner that struck me similar to an Octopus or Squid, spraying ink into water, only the ‘ink’ forms beautifully into complex and circular shapes… the words and sentences of the alien. Interestingly the circles have no start or finish which means that the thoughts of the aliens have come otu completed, similarly to writing with two hands and joining your sentence perfectly in the middle.
It takes weeks for any progress to be made whatsover. This is not an action movie in any way, though I get the feeling one or two raciers aspects were added for Hollywood. It is a very cerebal film on multiple levels. Obviously with Louise being a linguist, there is quite a lot of discussion about the complexities of language. How can you teach someone else your language and indeed learn theirs when there is no common starting point. Indeed the alien verbal language doesn’t even match their written language. Words can have very different meanings depending on their context. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, questions, thoughts, statements, synoymns… it all gets very complex even amongst us who all nominally understand English to one level or the other.
“What is your purpose on Earth?” is the question the military want to know. But what does purpose mean? Do they even have a purpose? Are they even aware of it? How do you differentiate between the individual alien and their purpose on Earth and that of the wider alien race? How do you show the aliens that a question requires an answer? And how do you understand all of rhese complexities when you receive an answer.
In language is one of the biggest influencers on a society and civilisation. Inuits have dozens of words for snow as it so influences their life and outlook on the world. A nomad in Mali would have no such use. At a superficial level compare the more bombastic and outgoing and confident use of words in America with a quieter and more subtle use of language in the U.K. Two countries that use the same language but do so at times very differently and many would say the countries and peoples have different charactistics too.
Languages are so precise and yet no language covers every eventuality. There are rules and complexities that non-native speakers struggle with. British English has many words and phrases that don’t make obvious sense to anyone else. Farsi in Iran is even more intricate and the traditions and sensibilities in nations from Japan and China through India, Pakistan, the Middle-East and much of Europe and Africa are strongly influenced by their language. Wrongly translate or misunderstand a statement or custom and you can cause great offence, maybe even start a war and all totally innocently.
As usual with the military, things come down to the use and threat of force. China, followed by one or two other nations are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress with communicating with the aliens. As Louise comments though, what you get out of the questions can entirely depend on your thought processes going into them.
With things heating up, Louise is ordered to ask the big question of the aliens. Just why are they here? The response is scary, they have come and given us a weapon and they seemingly want us to use it. This sets the hairs on the back of Washington but not so much as it does China and Russia who quickly shut down communication with everyone and go to a war-footing.
Louise and Ian try and convince the military that it is wrong to jump to the worst conclusions. Gavisti which is something I learned a long time ago, is as Louise informs the Colonel, the Sanskrit word for war or more precisely for a desire for more cows. You could get cows by breeding them, stealing them, fighting for them or merely have such a thought as a long term ambition or dream. The aliens might be offering any number of things and weapon could be a miscommunication for tool, device, concept or even idea.
The stress is getting to Louise and she finds herself increasingly suffering flashbacks of her time with her daughter. At first each last for just a few seconds but towards the end of the film, they vie for primacy with the actual events of the main plot line.
With China issuing an ultimatum to the aliens, the US military shut down communication with the remaining nations who also have alien ships. This is the aspect I didn’t believe or like as it made no sense. Sure if China and Russia behave like that then let them but why cut off talks with the UK or Australia? Communication, trust and openness is surely the one of the things that our societies value and make us arguably different than the communist nations. There are problems closer to home though and some xenophobic soldiers smuggle a bomb aboard the alien ship in Montana and it goes off just as the aliens expand upon their reasons for being here and just as Louise seemingly becomes increasingly fluent in their language. The peaceful motives of the aliens by saving the two scientists doesn’t sit well with the military and America to is preparing for reprisals from the aliens due to the upcoming Chinese attack and decide to close down the communications operation.
Despite deducing that it would take years to fully translate, Ian manages to work out that the alien word for Time is repeated across the text but the context of it is unknown, perhaps Faster Than Light space travel? He also concludes that they only have one twelth of the alien knowledge and that the other nations each have their own depositories meaning the only way to get to the bottom of the problem is for the nations to talk to each other which seems unlikely with the communciations shut down and war immiment.
Defying orders, Louise returns to the alien ship which is now sat several hundred feet up in the air. A small landing craft comes down to Earth and Louise enters. She is becoming fully conversant in the alien language and they communicate freely. It turns out that the Aliens want us to unify because they will need the help of a unified and peaceful humanity in 3,000 years time. The weapon that they have given us, isn’t a weapon at all, it is a gift. A gift of language and not just any old language, not even any old alien language.
Just as the brains of all of us are wired up slightly differently depending on our country and language then by becoming conversant in Hydropod, Louise can now think as a Hydropod. The gift of their language is the ability to see time in a non-linear fashion. Meaning they can live in today just as easy as tomorrow or indeed yesterday.
Louise manages to use this new perception to contact the Chinese General and give him some private information that changes his entire outlook on life and the world is saved from a terrible and perhaps final war. Their mission complete, the aliens leave Earth and Louise and Ian hook up, and as Louise can see in to the future, marry and have a child. The sequence at the beginning of the film and of the flashbacks throughout the film, aren’t of the past at all. Instead they are of the future.
I really, really enjoyed Arrival. It is unapolgetically, my sort of film. I thought about it all day and the last few days as it is quite immense. So far, I am the only person I know who grasped the idea that as Amy was learning the language, she was beginning to think as a Hydropod and see the future.. . in fragments at first and then more substantially as the language came together in her mind. I’m sure I can’t be the only person though.
There is only one use of bad language in the film, no physical violence, no action whatsoever but I found it utterly compelling. For 99% of films I watch, I come away disappointed and not in any way challenged or even given pause to think in any way, shape or form. Without wanting to sound conceited, I think that as a writer with a vivid imagination then the highest praise I can give is that I couldn’t do better and I haven’t said that for over a year.
I liked the slow burn of the story, the characters. The dissection of language, thoughts and perceptions. The alienness of the aliens, the methodology of translating, the concepts of non-lineal time perception.
I watched Interstellar last year and like with most other films, even mysteries, I guessed the entire plot and “twist” within a few minutes and that twist was the only thing that snooze-fest had going for it. Whilst I did guess the big picture with Arrival well before the end, it still was a very interesting ride and took me quite a time. Even when I had it all worked out, I still had to watch to the end to make sure that my deductions matched the film.
Arrival is a very intimate film, full of love and sadness and humanity. If you’re looking for a Star Wars or Independence Day then this film is definitely not for you. If you liked the old films Contact or Close Encounters then this one is for you though perhaps a little more cerebal than both.
Certanly the timing of the release of Arrival couldn’t have been better, with the need to communciate across borders and eventually unify, be more precise with language and be open to all possibilities.
As Ian says something along the lines to Louise at the end of the film, I spent all my life looking up to the skies. The biggest surprise wasn’t finding them but finding you.
I feel exactly the same about Arrival and so too I expect do the rest of the audience in the empty auditorium who get non-linear time.