War of the words11/30/2016
“Arrival” is an introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined movie that unfolds in a wave of breathtaking excitement.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is one of the world’s leading linguists. She has been recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications. Along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise attempts to get answers as to why 12 alien space crafts have landed at seemingly arbitrary locations around the world. Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise’s life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness.
The questions of how and why humans speak the way they do are interestingly dissected and explored in the film — something that comes across uniquely poignant considering the current political climate. While the movie explores how one might attempt to decode and understand alien (foreign) language, it more appropriately demonstrates the shortcomings of human communications with each other — even when speaking the same language.
When news of the aliens’ arrival is first broadcast, Director Denis Villeneuve effectively creates the pre-contact societal panic. Do these visitors come in peace? As is to be expected, the scientists strike a more curious and diplomatic posture, while the military cites the result of indigenous Australians being visited by Captain Cook and the white Europeans in the 18th century.
Louise and Ian dubbed the aliens “heptapods,” which they further named “Abbott” and “Costello,” a fantastic blend of creepy and memorable design with a written language that looks all at once like a stain from a wine glass and a work of art.
Their language turns out to be central to the aliens’ purpose on Earth. Using the concept-paradigm in linguistics and cognitive science known as “linguistic relativity” — which holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or world view — “Arrival” not only explores language but how that language affects the way a person thinks. As Louise slowly cracks the aliens’ language, her perception of reality changes as well. Flashbacks of her teaching her daughter to read, speak and communicate are interspersed throughout, giving an eerie sense glimpse of a past event. A pro-life sentiment is put forth by Villeneuve that praises the bravery of mothers who have children. Make no mistake, Louise is a brilliant woman, but the film seems to posit that she’s raised to the level of exceptional because of her duties as a mother.
At its essence, “Arrival” is an alien invasion film with the invasion on pause. International politics, foreign policy and fear of the other are at the forefront of the film. Seemingly simple translations yield a wealth of problems, as words like “tool,” “weapon” and “gift” can simultaneously stand for the same thing — and three different things at once. Less a sudden twist, “Arrival” is like a sleek unwinding of everything you think you know — a feeling of your seat slipping beneath you.
Make no mistake, “Arrival” will leave you speechless. ♦