Denis Villaneuve continues his string of flawless career choices with last year’s Arrival, a hard sci-fi thinking man’s film in the vein of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (although this one is more optimistic about our chances for communicating with aliens), that seeks to explore what it really means to understand the world we live in, and the challenges of communicating that shared experience.
The film opens with a somewhat boring prologue, told in voice-over by Amy Adams, about this being “Your” story. The “You” in this case is her daughter who – we learn via a sad montage of fleeting images of everyday life – contracts some kind of disease and dies. This struck me as a bit clumsy and melodramatic, and I kind of tuned out for some of it. We next see Adams living a lonely life, hollowed out in her own sadness as she goes through the motions of being one of the world’s leading linguistic experts. This depressing existence is disrupted one day by the arrival of twelve space-ships that look like seed pods, made out of an unknown material. She is recruited by the US government, in the best nerd porn tradition of Michael Crichton, along with Jeremy Renner to try and make contact with the hectapod alien squid-creatures inside the space-ships.
From there, this film is like Crichton at his best: a team of scientists working against the clock trying to figure out what the aliens want and how to communicate with them in their obscure, glyphic written language. Soon enough, Adams is dreaming in that language, and starts to put it together piece by piece while in the mean-time the rest of the world goes koo-koo bananas. A delicate system of international collaboration collapses as China – the closest thing the film has to a villain – decides the aliens have brought a weapon and figures the best thing to do is to blow them up before the other countries can get it.
The big reveal is that the aliens experience space-time differently than we do. To them, it is not linear, but circular and apparently deterministic. They are, in essence, able to live in the past, present and future simultaneously because the way they experience the world, via their language, is non-linear. There is a throwaway line early in the movie to provide some intellectual cover for this conceit – that learning a new language physically re-wires your brain and the way you perceive reality. Thus, as Amy Adams begins to de-code their language, she also begins to experience time in a non-linear manner and starts glimpsing the future. Whether this is plausible or not is not the point, of course. It is a clever idea that draws the way we experience reality - and all the ideas about the world that we derive therefrom - into sharp relief and makes us think about it, which is what the best sci-fi aspires to do: it makes us think.
Before this reveal, Adams' glimpses into the future are framed as flashbacks. But in an important scene she wakes up from a flashback and says “Who is this child?” At that point, the cat is out of the bag and everything that came before jumps into sharper focus. The prologue was not a prologue at all, but a vision of the future. She is aware that she will have a daughter, and that this daughter will pass away. She decides to do it anyway. This raises the question of whether free will exists at all, but only obliquely. The film doesn't come at it head on, framing Adams' choice to have a daughter - even one who is doomed to a premature death - as a conscious and mostly sentimental decision on her part, but of course Philosophy 101 nerds in the audience could have a field day with the implications of that decision. Like all good sci-fi, Arrival asks interesting, provocative questions. It doesn't necessarily answer them.
All of this heady philosophical stuff is balanced on the back of a well-made science fiction film with a gorgeous, under-stated visual aesthetic. The theme of communication and its inherent difficulty is reflected through the experience of communicating with the aliens and the other countries in the world. The film is whip-smart in its take on language, meaning and the chasm that separates people (and aliens) from understanding one another. As the AV Club's A. A. Dowd points out, it cleverly plays on this even with the opening prologue. We are so used to the established language of filmmaking that we just – most of us; I certainly did – chalked it to up another boring flashback montage giving sad back-story for a main character, not realizing what we are actually seeing because we are so conditioned to interpret and view film in a particular way. Pulling this kind of trickery by exploiting our familiarity with the language of cinema, in a film ABOUT language and meaning, is nothing short of brilliant.