Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) is a science fiction film that chooses to do something extraordinary – in that, it takes an old idea and enrichens it to be far greater than the sum of its parts. Scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and with a cast featuring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whittaker at the lead, Arrival rose to high praise in 2016, which, in this author’s opinion, was wholly well deserved.
The story, based on the Hugo Award-winning novella “Story of Your Life”, by Ted Chiang, follows professor of linguistics Dr. Louise Banks, portrayed by Amy Adams, thrust into a world that has been darkened already. We are told that she has lost her adolescent daughter to an incurable illness, unquestionably scarring her psyche for life. Having set this fundamental aspect of Banks’ character at the beginning, Villeneuve proceeds to lead us through the rest of the film giving us a new set of lenses through which we can view her experiences.
The film concerns the arrival of twelve extraterrestrial spaceships that have been silently hovering over twelve different points on Earth. As mass panic and confusion ensue, Banks is enlisted by the U.S Government to use her prowess in linguistics to figure out the purpose of the arrival of the mysterious spaceships. Here she is assisted by Forest Whittaker’s Colonel Weber and Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, two figures integral to the excellence of the film. The story showcases the attempts of humans, all around the globe, as they try to figure out, cipher by cipher, what knowledge the aliens are trying to relay to them.
Contrary to most films about the first contact, Arrival perceives this remarkable event as deeply rooted in science. There aren’t any little green men or hordes of soldiers fighting against the aliens “for humanity”. The main principle of the film revolves around linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). The hypothesis of linguistic relativity is a principle claiming that the structure of a language affects its speakers' cognition, and thus people's perceptions are relative to their spoken language. In other words, your worldview is affected by the language you speak.
A feature of this theory is whether human psychological faculties are mostly innate or whether they are mostly a result of learning, and hence subject to social processes such as language. An alternate view would be that humans share the same set of basic faculties, and that variability due to cultural differences is less important – the human mind is (mostly a) biological construction. Therefore, humans sharing the same neurological configuration of brains can have similar behaviour or cognitive patterns.In the philosophy of language, the question addresses the relations between language, knowledge, and the external world, and the concept of truth.
While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is primarily used for human language, here, the film uses it as a catalyst for the core ideas of its message. The language employed by the aliens is not simply a tool to talk to other species – it’s something that shapes their perception of reality itself. Arrival explores how the aliens utilize their limited assets – namely, strange ink symbols – and try to convey these ideas to humans, however complex they may be.The execution of these ideas is carried out near perfectly, with Villeneuve selecting not to underestimate how much the audience can comprehend.
But as much as it deals with the specifics of extraterrestrial communication, somehow, Villeneuve manages to ground us back to reality with a carefully crafted mirror of our world today, along with how we perceive our life and how important people can be in it. Arrival isn’t a film about extraterrestrials as much as it is about the human experience, and everything – be it jest or sorrow–that comes along with it for us to endure. Without ruining anything, I can safely assure you that the climax contains one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve witnessed on screen, considering how richly it ties back around to every small detail that was sown throughout the film.
The idea of aliens visiting our human world has persisted throughout all of fiction. We have always imagined establishing relations with a higher power, knowing the answers to all the questions we’ve asked over and over again. Arrival is a film that decides to take this tried and tested formula and envelope it in a beautiful allegory for communication, language, and our common humanity.
By Rikshubhra Bhattarcharjya