Warning: slightly spoilery.
Arrival is challenging yet comforting science fiction and frankly it’s about time.
And language – Captain Cook, keen to know the name of the bouncy animal with the pouch, asked a group of Aborigines. Kangaroo they replied, and so it became, though actually kangaroo turned out to simply mean “I don’t know”.
Words and their rules are our best form of communication which makes them hugely valuable – whoever controls language does, to an extent, control thought.
Usually the groups who control language are men. Which makes Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – who appreciates the importance of understanding the building blocks of language before you even get to ask a simple question (what, after all, is a question?) – even more fascinating.
Actually there’s not a massive amount more I can offer about Arrival without spoiling it for you, though maybe you already knew that.
Louise is a quiet, self-contained linguistics academic, divorced and bereaved (her daughter has died). She lives alone in a remote house while teaching at her local university; one day students start receiving messages from friends about large pod-shaped craft that have appeared around the globe, and as riots and lotting break out, the US President declares a state of emergency.
Louise is visited by Colonel Weber (an excellent Forest Whitaker) who wants her to help them communicate with the alien craft, and despite her initial reluctance, soon she’s getting on a helicopter in the middle of the night.
It’s while being flown to Montana, the site of the US-landed craft, that Louise meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a mathematician.
The spaceships are giant black elongated pods with one long flat side, and could easily be mistaken for Turner Prize winners designed to annoy Daily Mail readers for not really being art. There are 12 of them all round the world, from the Black Sea to rural Devon. Initially they hover, vertical, a few feet off the ground, opening up at the base every 18 hours, allowing each country’s experts to enter.
Once in Montana, Louise and Ian, plus some supporting soldiers and a canary, suit up and head to the pods. Gravity is weaker inside, and the two of them come to face to face with the aliens, separated only by a solid clear screen. The aliens are heptapods – seven footed – and are soon nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Ian, though I’m not convinced renaming visitors is culturally appropriate.
It’s still unclear whether their presence is aggressive or benign; their spoken language is impossible to understand, and Louise is left having to work out how to translate the inky squiggles they emit from their feet.
“Why Are They Here” asks the Arrival poster, just like me when hosting a playdate that I cannot fathom ever having arranged. “Why” is gradually revealed by Louise and despite government expectations that this can be straightforwardly answered, she can’t just go in and ask.
She needs to be confident that the aliens understand what a question is, then they need to understand the words, then they need to understand the concept behind it. Then Louise and her team need to be able to understand the aliens’ reply in a language that may not even follow our most basic communication conventions.
Added to this of course, the aliens represent one civilisation, but Earth has no single leader and instead several mistrustful ones (I find this fascinating in sci fi, the assumption that – mostly – aliens are seen as peacefully co-existing with their own species on their home planet. We can’t really be the only lump of rock in the universe populated by warlike dickheads).
As Louise and Ian work to communicate with the aliens around them, the peace – between nations, and between nations and their extraterrestrial visitors – is fragile.
Amy Adams is superb as Louise, self-contained, thoughtful and driven. And as the story unfolds (refolds?) it becomes more astonishing that her character can remain so calm while a maelstrom of emotion is charging through her head and devastating memories threaten to overwhelm her.
When Ian first appears on the helicopter taking him and Louise to Montana, he comes across like Jeff Goldblum’s character – also an Ian – in Jurassic Park. “The “science” one, happily pointing out to Louise the error of her writings.
Ian later learns to hang back though, retreating and listening for the rest of the film – it’s a restrained and subtle performance from Renner. And it is absolutely Adams’ film, with Renner and Whitaker as quietly solid supports.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s film is thoughtful science fiction that unfolds around you, while its communication themes gradually make themselves known: alien language, and how time is represented through language; how the different nations, and the visitors, are using language in their own culturally important ways to communicate (the Chinese use Marjong); how the same words can be translated in such radically different ways with potentially disastrous outcomes.
And how easy it is to forget that languages have evolved in different places to do different things (at its simplest, doesn’t it still feel odd when you hear of a dialect with no word for a common item or feeling. How can it even have happened if we can’t describe it?)
The film’s ideas about time offer as many potential trip-ups for the unwary as its ideas about language. Words may evolve from one meaning to the next but they can also have many meanings all at once; time too is not simply linear, one thing leading to another – an idea that’s hugely challenging (what can we change?), but also in some ways very comforting (how can we fear the unknownness of our future if it isn’t either of those things?)
And that kangaroo? I don’t know… It turns out that particular historical incident never happened. It was invented by Louise on the spur of the moment to buy her some time.
Watch the trailer for Arrival: