Based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer
Music by Johan Johannsson
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Joe Walker
“Don’t let it end this way…”
-Klingon Chancellor Gorkon’s (David Warner) dying words in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
“Holy fuck . . .”
-Ian (Jeremy Renner) in the film Arrival (2016)
A woman, a new mother (Amy Adams) speaks to us in poetry about time, and loss, and mortality. We see a life in fast forward-birth to death-a young daughter’s life cut short, in fact, leaving a divorced, bereaved mother to pick up the pieces and soldier forward with her life as a college professor. She is absorbed into her daily routine, as she walks through a university common area where students and staff cluster around a giant flatscreen. When she gets into the lecture hall, most of her students are absent, and those that are present are glued to their screens. She asks what’s up. A student answers by requesting the professor to tune the flatscreen to a news channel …
Strange objects-designated ‘shells’ by the US government-manifest in the skies over twelve human nations all across the Earth. They have no visible means of propulsion, and emit no waste products measurable by Earthling science. The shells look like slices off some titanic, impossibly hard alien fruit, or maybe the shavings off some monstrous carving. They just hang in the sky, defying all our physics, no doubt provoking hack cable news pundits to make references to H.G. Wells, the Sword of Damocles, maybe out-of-context (mis)quotations from the Bible, especially the Book of Revelations.
One of the twelve shells has touched down in Montana. The US Army mobilizes to throw up a security/quarantine perimeter around the alien object. A secret effort is made to attempt to communicate with whatever intelligence lies within the shell ...
Soon enough, the woman from the cryptic opening is further delineated within her professional context: Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the US Army gets in touch with linguist and college professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose mastery of human languages in both theory and practice makes her a vital asset to the US’s Forever Wars on Terror. Colonel Weber, abruptly visiting her office in civvies with an armed escort, makes a terse, complimentary reference to their previous collaboration involving translations from Farsi: “You made short work of those insurgent videos.” Dr. Banks says, “You made short work of those insurgents.” Her solemn tone evokes a sense of betrayal-she didn’t sign on to be a cog in a killing machine. But when Colonel Weber offers her a chance to work on translating what may be an extraterrestrial language-the faltering initial gambit of First Contact between humanity and an intelligent alien species-she jumps at the chance.
Dr. Banks is, after some runaround by the government, inducted into a secret operation to communicate with the alien beings inside the shells. Banks is paired with Ian (Jeremy Renner) an astrophysicist. They are overseen by Weber and the deeply suspicious, but intellectual, CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). Dr. Banks and Ian are paired up to work on the problem of communication with extraterrestrials from the differing perspectives of language and mathematics. After some initial discussion of the differences between the soft science of linguistics and the hard science of numbers, Dr. Banks and Ian, consummate professionals who respect each other, get to work on the essential question to be posed to the aliens: “What are you doing on Earth?”
Meanwhile, human societies lose their shit. What’s left of it. Especially here in the USofA: food riots; mass suicides by a religious cult; the National Guard is deployed to maintain order through force; conspiracy mongering by online socially mediated echo chambers stokes fear and distrust of science; talking heads of corporatist Neoliberal media outlets churning out sensationalist pseudo-scientific talking head chatter dilute the information ecology; and, through it all, the very worst human instincts are aided and abetted by online right-wing, Neo-Fascist, and white supremacist disinformation ops. Ignorance, fear, anti-intellectualism, nationalism, racism, and late stage capitalist distortion of reality for infotainment, profit, and fuel purposes derange the human species’ collective capacity for communication and collaboration. Suspicion is also generated by the secretive efforts by national governments to keep their efforts to communicate with the shells under wraps.
Dr. Banks and Ian feel the pressure from Weber and Halpern to force results by cutting corners on scientific rigor within the security culture bubble thrown up to maintain US supremacy, even as other nations compete to be the first to crack the alien riddle. China, led by the hawkish General Shang (Tzi Ma), is the primary rival to the US. Nuclear armed, paranoid nation states all in thrall to doctrines of national supremacy, all trying to be first to decide whether to slaughter the aliens or forge a way to the negotiation table. It’ll all work out in the end-won’t it?
Director Villeneuve crafts a sci-fi film as visually and sonically rigorous and mysterious as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while weaving in human emotions of loss, longing, wonder, despair, paranoia, anger, hatred, and desperation. This is science fiction which is grounded in the central performance of Amy Adams, with the special effects as a support, contra Kubrick’s masterwork which casts human beings as specks within the cosmos. Humanity, however imperfect, has to reckon with its own agency as citizens of the cosmos in Arrival, whereas in 2001 humanity is at the whims of vast, alien powers manipulating our evolutionary history for unknowable purposes.
A major theme is the peril of communication between past and future both within ourselves as individual sentient beings with complex memories, and on the level of a human planetary society making a faltering first attempt at hailing an utterly alien intelligence and the redefinition of human identity that entails. Another theme is disorientation: the movie begins with a montaged depiction of Dr. Banks’s daughter’s birth-life-death which gives no hint of the first contact saga to come. But the grief and loss within Dr. Banks partially drives her mission to communicate with the aliens. When the human communications team first enters the central chamber of an alien shell, they are subject to weird gravity effects, and a key shot is framed upside down hammering home the idea of losing all human moorings when coming into the presence of the truly alien.
It would be criminal for me to spoil this movie any further. Part of Arrival’s power comes from the process of discovery. This is one of those movies you’re just going to have to see for yourself, Dear Reader. It’s a smart film about ideas, emotions, and high stakes conflicts. It is the rare science fiction film that functions at the same level of sophistication as science fiction literature. Think 2001, Gattaca, Solaris, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell. Arrival will pop up on lists of the greatest sci-fi movies in years to come. Try to see it on the biggest, brightest screen possible, with the sound cranked to the max.