Visual depictions of aliens tend to disappoint. We want something strange and fantastic, frightening in its unknowability, but usually end up with the creatures of Star Trek or Doctor Who: regular ol’ human beings with some extra stuff glued onto their faces. Part of the joy in Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama Arrival stems from how truly “other” the titular arrivers are, not just in their appearance but in their language and processes as well.
The aliens’ language provides the way into the film, via linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is recruited by a military figure (Forrest Whitaker) and pared with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to discover the intentions of an unidentified craft that hovering over a field in middle America, one of twelve that suddenly appeared throughout the world. Focalizing the experience through Adams’s character mitigates some of the more familiar elements of the film’s premise. Thanks to 50s creature features and sci fi classics 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we’re well accustomed to the behavior of military officials shuffling scientists around invasion points, of balancing the wonder of discovery with the threat of the unknown.
To be sure, these elements propel the plot of Arrival, as Americans try to determine the best way to handle the invasion, sometimes collaborating with and sometimes suspicious of its usual terrestrial rivals Russia and China. But these are all subsumed by the desire of Adams’s character to simply talk with the figures, and her exploration of the creature’s language makes for some of the most fascinating elements of the film.
As the film explores these aspects, it becomes a meditation on the relation between language and perception, reminding us that the words available to us inform the way we make sense of the world. And so we see this throughout the movie: by bracketing the interactions with the creatures a military venture, everything spoken – even the most hopeful and communitarian – must first contend with the potential for threat and violence. As Villeneuve expands this theme to address issues of time and causality, we see the impossibility of thinking outside of one’s context.
This impossibility becomes most pronounced in the structure of the movie, which tries to represent in film the experience of consciousness raising found at the end of 2001, but never really embraces the formal experimentation necessary. Instead, if operates according to a fairly standard climax style, building on a tension already undermined by the story’s treatment of time.
But the film succeeds in these shortcomings precisely because it turns back to the human, specifically basic human relationships. Reoccurring motifs of mother and child interactions, which become more intelligible on the levels of both plot and theme as the movie progresses, provide a beautiful emotional grounding. It never becomes weird or alien, but pulls us back to Earth, more urgently compelling us to communicate better with those already here.