We think a lot about aliens. Look at the films in theatres right now, and you can bet at least a handful of them will feature creatures or beings from other planets, worlds, or dimensions. Usually the heroes are fighting with the aliens, sometimes they’re fighting for the aliens, but rarely is much of the story spent trying to communicate with them. Either they speak some human language or it doesn’t matter.
Not so with Arrival, the rare film that merges science fiction, psychological drama, and the field of linguistics.
3P Reviews: Arrival
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Voices
People often talk about what makes us “human,” and that question has always bothered me because it tends to assume the positive experiences in a person’s life should be used to distinguish them from other beings. It always seems like less of a celebration of being alive than a shaky assertion that it’s okay to eat animals because they’re not as smart as people, or at least they don’t create art or love each other. We’re better than them. It’s fine.
This hasn’t historically just applied to the boundary between humans and animals, of course. Even today, you can see people in positions of power seeking to distinguish themselves from others by inflating their own accomplishments and denigrating or ignoring those of others in order to maintain their power. It’s a reactionary behavior. People who realize their livelihoods depend on keeping others oppressed or tortured will try to justify it to themselves and their peers. The Other deserves to be killed, they say, or imprisoned, or mutilated, or kicked. Look at what they are and what they’ve done.
When people can’t find a scapegoat that looks actively threatening, they’ll find one that’s unfamiliar and paint it to look evil.
So, aliens. Despite NASA and the Internet’s best efforts, we still have not found life on other celestial bodies. We don’t know what aliens look like, and since killing or eating all of the other human species on the planet to extinction, we’ve been lonely. Yes, there are plenty of other smart animals, but we eat them too, so we don’t often like to think about how smart they are. Plus, none of them can really talk, not like us.
The solution is fantasy. We create fantastic beings of our own, and when they seem old and stale, we turn to the unknown to inspire fresh creations.
Arrival is about language above all else. Language is what it does well. It’s what the story’s about, really.
Louise is a world-renowned professor of linguistics living alone in a fancy mansion when twelve alien ships appear around the world. An army colonel comes to Louise for advice in understanding the aliens’ language and when she explains to him she can’t merely decipher an unknown language from a recording, he invites her to join a team sent to study one of the ships.
With the help of a physicist, Louise learns that the aliens, squid-like Heptapods, have a more easily-replicated written language. She sets to work teaching the aliens some of her language and receiving the same from them. Eventually, they begin to build up a mutual vocabulary and devise a way to effectively communicate with the Heptapods, slowly building an understanding of who they are and why they’ve come. The aliens give the answer, “Use weapon.”
Fear that the Heptapods have and might use or dole out weapons, communications between the different countries investigating the aliens deteriorate. Louise suggests it may be a mistranslation and that the aliens could instead mean “offer tool,” but before she can fully make sense of the message, countries start to act hostile toward their alien ships.
Louise manages to talk to the aliens one more time and learns that because their language is not temporally fixed, it allows people to see into the future, and it is the weapon the aliens are offering humanity. Using this information, she soothes ties between the aliens and humanity.
It’s an artsy movie, so you can expect a bit more than a synopsis can offer in the real product.
Part Two: Premonitions
If language is the main motif of this film, understanding is its main theme. Language is the means of understanding, but it must also be understood before it can be of use.
The film spends most of its first half concerned with breaking down what a language even is, with Louise teaching the aliens basic human concepts long before she tries to talk to them about strategy or technology. Language comes naturally to humans (with a few exceptions), so we tend to make a lot of assumptions about languages we don’t know. Concepts like gender, declension, conjugation, tone — all perfectly natural if they’re found in your native tongue — are initially foreign to someone who grew up speaking a language with different features. Cultural trends are ingrained in language, as are historical curiosities that leave a fingerprint long after the events causing them are forgotten. (I speak English, I should know; my language is German wearing a French coat, Norse boots, Dutch gloves, and buckets of accessories stolen from Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese, Mayan, Nahuatl, Algonquin, Russian, Polish, Turkish, and pretty much any other language spoken in places the British invaded.)
When you start to imagine language spoken by something not even human, everything becomes simultaneously fuzzier and more complicated. And one if the hallmarks of this film is that it addresses that idea. Maybe a bit too basically in the end, but I can talk about its shortcomings later.
Being science fiction, Arrival is unbound by the constraints of realism, even though it adheres to a general plausibility backed by science. Because non-franchise artistic projects like this tend to follow a few predictable beats, yes there’s a psychological twist and yes, it’s probably the first thing you heard about the film.
If I sound a little bitter about the time-travel elements… well, I am, but only by half.
It’s not bad delivery, but there’s no real reason for the story to come down to time-travel aside from a desire to resolve the plot in a way loosely connected to the theme of understanding. Throughout the film, Louise has flashbacks to her daughter, who died of cancer at a young age, and she remarks on them in voiceover. Throughout the investigation, she grows close to her physicist partner, Ian, and confesses to having strange dreams. When the film reveals the aliens’ language changes a person’s perception of time once they learn it, Louise realizes these dreams are premonitions of the daughter she has yet to have, and the film ends with her and Ian getting together.
The general debate around this portion of the plot is whether Louise decides to have her daughter, despite knowing she will die tragically, or whether Louise can merely see the future the way one sees memories.
And this whole argument bugs the hell out of me because it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It’s a distraction, tangential to the main thrust of the narrative. The time-travel aspect could be cut and the ending resolved a different way and ninety-some percent of the story would be unchanged. The point is that the alien language has something human languages are incapable of, and figuring out how they think is the key to communication. The story relies on empathy, but in the last twenty minutes or so, it seems to forget this for the sake of a plot twist.
Now don’t get me wrong, this film has a nice aesthetic and looks impressive regardless of what screen you watch it on. I only ever saw this one on the small screen, and I feel like I missed out on some of the atmosphere, but even so, it has creative visuals that make good use of relatively few fantastical elements. It has a monotone color palate, but this enhances the contrast, which becomes so distinct that major elements of the film, like the aliens, the language, and the ships, are instantly recognizable. The dialogue is decently complex without being confusing, and the characters suit the length of story they’re in. It’s a relatively tight little film. I just wish it was content staying this way.
Part Three: Kangaroo
Early in the story, Louise tells a tale about how Europeans learned the word “kangaroo.” According to the story, when colonists first arrived in Australia and saw kangaroos, they pointed to the creatures and asked the people living there what they called them. The native people responded, “kangaroo,” but what the settlers didn’t know was that “kangaroo” actually meant “I don’t understand.”
This example convinces her superior that Louise knows how to approach communication. Later in private, Louise tells Ian that the story is apocryphal.
The anecdote introduces the course of Louise’s interactions with the Heptapods, presenting her actions as focused on context and culture on both ends. This is in fitting with the resolution of the story; the aliens want to help humanity so humanity can help them in the future, and they want humanity to work together. Understanding this is crucial to understanding the tool they’re offering and the way they give it.
But the frame story is still untrue, and I find that noteworthy. I’m not entirely sure why that line declaring the story false is in the film, to be honest. It undermines Louise’s point, even though the idea behind the kangaroo story holds true for the rest of the film. Louise has an unstable relationship with the military personnel she’s assigned to work with, so she does occasionally disobey instructions in the pursuit of speaking to the aliens. There aren’t many other places where she outright lies to them, though, and it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to come up with a real-world example with a similar bite to it. She actually does just that when initially being recruited.
The kangaroo story is more for the audience than the characters. The kangaroo myth has been around for a long time and despite the ease of disproving it through the internet, it’s catchy enough that it tends to propagate without much fact-checking in between. A heavily researched film like this is the sort that would want to correct that assumption. As it’s a decent example of a real phenomenon, even if its particulars are untrue, the story works as an educational tool. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it comes up in lectures in Introduction to Linguistics courses.
That’s kind of the problem, though, and it’s emblematic of the most glaring problem in the film: the pieces don’t quite fit together properly.
Toward the end of the film, Arrival doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be. Its core story is about exchanging language for the sake of communicating with a wholly alien species. This is a small story that requires a small climax. Figuring out the language is enough. But the film isn’t content with that — it also wants to be about time-travel and free will and Chinese militaristic tendencies and action and plot twists. Very few of these have to do with linguistics, and the film doesn’t do much to ground them earlier, so to ramp up the tension appropriate to a theatre-going audience, the film opts to try to smush everything together into a tense climax.
I don’t think it’s necessary, or particularly effective. The film is two hours long, when it probably should have been closer to an hour and a half like Gravity. It has far more to say than Gravity, even without the time-travel and Chinese subplots, but it likewise has a small cast and limited scope. This is the sort of film that works best when kept tight, that way the audience neither becomes bored with the technical explanations nor overwhelmed by logical fallacies. And the film manages to stay the appropriate size for the first half of its run, only spiraling out a bit toward the end. It’s frustrating to me not because it’s a bad film — it isn’t — but because it’s not as good as it could have been. I would have been content with a small story about what it’s like to talk to aliens.
The film is based on the short story, Story of Your Life, and to my understanding, the source material has that smaller scope I’m talking about. I haven’t read it, but I suppose I probably should. Short stories, especially those on the longer side of things, tend to adapt well into films because they’re usually self-contained but designed for expansion. Rarely is a short story just the words on its page and nothing more. Given the time-fluid aspect of the language is a part of the original story, I don’t imagine Arrival is unfaithful or disruptive in any meaningful way. I do wonder, however, if its choice to make the climax more dramatic is an indication that the requirements of theatrical films, especially from a financial standpoint, no longer allow for small stakes or simple stories. If that’s the case, we may be worse for it.