Arrival, from Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), might be one of the best films of the year, a close second behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (I kid about that last part, but the DC fanboy within me wishes it were true). It’s a wonderful piece of art, both in the cinematic delivery and the messages it preaches. Arrival is about an expert linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose services are required when 12 alien ships land on Earth.
The film jumps straight into the action, taking all of five to ten minutes to setup up Adam’s character and her current situation. Arrival is a slower paced film, but it moves forward at a constant pace. The cinematography and selection of shots is smart and effective; the sound design is eerie, creating a sense mystery throughout; the alien’s character design is unique; and the CGI is believable.
Arrival is a first contact science fiction film, but largely holds back on the action sequences. As a result, dialogue takes up a large portion of the film. Both the content and delivery are superb. Amy Adams delivers a captivating leading performance with Jeremy Renner providing a solid supporting role.
Language, culture and how the two interact is Arrival‘s biggest theme. With 12 different nations and cultures over the world trying to converse with the aliens – called heptapods in the film because of their seven legs – how their languages effect their interactions with the aliens is important, and it’s not something I’d thought about before seeing the film.
Some nations want to talk to them and interact with them to find out why they are on Earth, whereas others take a more hostile, military approach when they decide conversation is not working. The film uses the metaphor of chess to help the audience understand how different languages influence how cultures perceive the world, and how this could have a negative effect on someone or, in this case, something learning the language and how the culture perceives the world. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson wrote a great piece on this aspect of Arrival, you should give it a read once you’re done with this.
Other ideas in Arrival include the idea of living in the present and the relativity of time; that’s where the science fiction elements take full flight. Gizmodo’s Beth Elderkin asked some interesting questions with regards to the theories express in the film. Another good read.
However, the idea, or message, I want to talk about today is the idea that humanity’s instinct is to treat every new race as a threat. The term used to demonstrate this in the film is “give weapon”. Some nations deem it hostile, while others are sceptical about its meaning. As you’ll see if you watch the film, all of the above ideas interweave and play off one another. However, given the events of the past week and the year in general, this final theme is why Arrival’s release could not have come at a better time.
In science fiction films, a new threat is usually a new species that has come to take over Earth. However, translated to modern times, these threats to the unknown or misinterpreted take the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, etc. Throughout history, anything new or different has been seen as a threat and to be met with hostility or oppression. Just look at colonisation and its effects on indigenous races globally, or how the Catholic Church views homosexuality.
We like to group ourselves in every way possible. We group by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, wealth class, which state we live in or even which neighbourhood. Sure, these groups all have things that make them unique, but too often we perceive different as hostile. It’s a misinterpretation, a failure to understand and it’s hurting us as a collective.
The power of science fiction is that it groups humans together, forcing us to unite to solve an issue rather than tackling it alone. To Arrival’s heptapods, we are all humans. We are all a collective. Science fiction films, and especially Arrival, remind us that deep down, we are all the same. We are all human. In Arrival, it takes an alien species and some science fiction theories to unite us. Is that really what it is going to take to stop humanity from hating, fear-mongering and oppressing itself?
The bigger question something like this raises is, how do we stop something that’s so entrenched? We’ve been grouping ourselves and fighting against ourselves for centuries, millennia even. Sure, we’ve got a United Nations, but it’s more a symbol than anything meaningful. Arrival suggests that we must negotiate and communicate with each other to achieve a non-zero sum game. That is, both sides can gain something from a transaction. Clearly, we are a long way from achieving this, but eventually we have to turn conversation into meaningful action.
We don’t have to completely understand each other and our unique cultures, but it is important that we understand that hate, disrespect and isolation of groups and cultures does not help humanity. Arrival only takes two hours to demonstrate this fact, and it’s the most relevant and important two hours of film you should consume all year.