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Meaning What You Say: Arrival and the Heart of Communication

“It’s a good story.”
“Thanks. It’s not true, but it proves my point.”

Every movie about aliens is a movie about communication—or rather, miscommunication. The core issue is always humans’ basic inability to talk to and understand the aliens they’re observing, and how this manifests itself in everything from wonder (people watching the majestic ships glide through the sky in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to terror (people running from the single-track-minded xenomorph in Alien). Sometimes this gap is bridged by the aliens’ superior intellects and abilities: the creature in E.T. establishes a psychic link with the boy Elliott to achieve his goals, and the beings in Contact are able to appear in Dr. Arroway’s psyche in the form of her father to make her more receptive to their message. But Arrival might be the only movie where our knowledge and insight are just as important as any visitors’, and where the plot hangs not on a threat of annihilation or even contact but on the ability to listen, learn, and speak with something you can barely comprehend. It’s a movie about understanding.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival is the least explosive movie you will ever see that features a dozen alien ships suddenly appearing in our sky and throwing the world into panic. Director Denis Villeneuve only lets us witness these things through screens, our experience of the aliens’ arrival and various nations’ subsequent reactions mediated through news and commentary. There’s a practical appeal here—your effects budget is going to be significantly smaller—but, more importantly, an aesthetic one: this is a movie about messages, about hearing things and interpreting them, and Villeneuve grounds the viewer from the outset in that point of view. Even when we eventually see the aliens on screen, we only ever do so in the presence of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s been brought in by the Army as part of their full-court press to do everything they can to figure out why the aliens have come to Earth.

Louise is a university professor and made out to be the best kind of educator: one who truly cares about imparting understanding to her students and subjects. She wins the contracting job with the Army to try to decipher the aliens’ language because she more convincingly translates the Sanskrit word for “war”: a colleague says it means “an argument,” but she says it simply means “a desire for more cows.” This minor but important delineation, and her character’s willingness to hunt for the core truth of something and not merely latch on to its assumed effects, is illustrative of what sets her apart from the soldiers and bureaucrats around her who are convinced that the aliens’ arrival means only the end of humankind.

Maybe the best word for it is patience: this is a movie about taking your time, and one that also takes time and care in the way it tells its story. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a space that’s gentle and inviting, relying on soft camera movements and plenty of locked compositions that deftly convey emotional meaning. It’s in the ceiling looming over Louise in her empty house to emphasize her loneliness, or in the gradual slide of the camera around corners as if we’re part of the team following the researchers to work. Most of all, it’s in the lengthy take where we finally get to see the alien ship hovering over an empty field, clouds rolled back as if repelled, people and trucks like ants on the ground, the sheer size and scale of it is staggering.

This is a movie about awe, about reckoning, and Villeneuve knows just when to let us gape at these galactic beings. We don’t see the inside of the alien ship until we go with Louise, and we only ever see it in her presence. Even when we finally see the alien creatures themselves—tall seven-limbed beings dubbed heptapods, separated from the antechamber housing the humans by a thick glass-like wall, behind which they seem to float in a hazy liquid—it’s in relation to how they make Louise feel: small, unworthy, dumbstruck.

That sense of dawning understanding permeates the film, thanks to the ingenuity of Chiang’s original story and the screenplay credited to Eric Heisserer. Tasked with deciphering the heptapods’ spoken language, which sounds like shuddering machinery, and their visual language, which is displayed suspended in floating ink behind the glass of their cell, Louise discovers that the heptapods’ communication methods are set apart from ours not only by their symbols, but in the way those symbols are combined to create meaning. Humans read and speak linearly, from the beginning of a sentence to the end. These heptapods, though, communicate visually in giant loops of ink that each have different fractal branches shooting off: they’re sending the entire concept at once, in a single package. The beauty of this is that it also shifts their perception of time itself, which they see like their language as happening all at once, the way we might posit God experiencing time. In turn, it begins to affect how Louise understands time, too, changing the way her story unfolds because, in a way, it already unfolded.

This revelation of time’s malleability is also wonderfully handled by Villeneuve. Rather than serve as some last-minute twist, Louise’s enhanced perception of time colors the final half-hour of the film. Throughout the film, we’ve caught glimpses of Louise in a different time, always assuming it was the past because of the emotional weight they seemed to carry (and it would be most likely for a movie to use flashbacks than anything else). Now, though, we realize that we’re seeing what we would think of as Louise’s future and what the heptapods would think of just another part of her existence, and we start to get more of these moments as Louise, too, realizes that’s what’s happening. And more than that—beautifully, powerfully—Louise starts to learn things in the “future” that she can act on in the “present.” It introduces and executes its big idea in a way with more grace and resonance than almost any other movie in the genre.

Arrival creates something so much more interesting than a time-travel twist that hinges on familiar debates between free will and determinism. Rather, it sidesteps that entire debate by creating a way of being that says that all this already happened, is happening, will happen: all at once. You did what you’ll do because you are. After all, what better way to communicate with someone, to make your intentions understood, than to show them every bit of yourself?

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Written By

Daniel Carlson is a lapsed film critic living in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared at Oscilloscope's Musings, The Hollywood Reporter, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. He and his wife host a podcast called "How Have You Not Seen This?!"

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