Arrival (M). Director: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner. 116 minutes
In science fiction, stories of first contact with alien species typically have as much to say about humanity as they do about the exotic extra-terrestrial creations of the author's imagination. Mary Doria Russell's 1998 novel The Sparrow is a fine example. It explores the consequences of a Jesuit-led mission to a planet near Alpha Centauri, which are profound for the planet's sentient inhabitants and devastating for the human travellers. Upon our first meeting him, mission leader Fr Emilio Sandoz has returned to earth a physical and spiritual wreck.
Years earlier, Emilio had worked for some decades as a missionary. In this, his proficiency at learning languages and understanding their cultural subtext helped him substantially. This linguistic gift made him a prime candidate for the journey to a planet whose inhabitants first announced their presence via songs beamed the four-plus light years to Earth. Once there, his absorption in and of language allows him to become deeply immersed. Yet coming to the language as an outsider leaves scope for misinterpretation. This has dire consequences.
Language, too, is central to Arrival, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's entry into the ouvre of philosophically piquant first contact stories. Its hero Dr Louise Banks (Adams) is, like Emilio, a talented linguist, and so is enlisted by the US military to aid in its interactions with the occupants of one of 12 alien craft that have descended upon earth. The great, tentacled creatures communicate with sounds that, we are told, no human voice can reproduce, but also with a form of written language, which takes the form of complex circular hieroglyphs.
Louise has experienced loss. A prologue relates her experiences as mother to a daughter who died of cancer at a young age. The task of interacting with the aliens provides a distraction from loneliness and grief; implicitly, to realise we are not alone in the universe can be as comforting as it might be terrifying.
"With other nations preparing to engage violently, the American Louise's efforts to understand may hold the key to staving off interplanetary war."
Yet there is a political urgency to the task, too. Have the beings come with aggressive or benevolent intent? With other nations preparing to engage violently, the American Louise's efforts to understand may hold the key to staving off interplanetary war.
In contrast to The Sparrow's careful exploration of language and the cognitive assumptions that underpin it, Arrival neglects the process of how Louise comes to understand the language. Instead, her physicist offsider Ian (Renner) provides a voiceover that fudges over how she comes from illiteracy to virtual fluency. Rather more helpfully, a brief exchange of dialogue explains that learning a new language can effectively rewire your brain. The fact that Louise eventually comes to think in the alien language is central to the most significant plot development.
Just as Emilio's encounter with alien species — their language, their way of thinking and of being — leads him to a new, deeper and more painful understanding of his own humanity (and of his relationship with God, which may or may not be the same thing), Louise's engagement with things that are not of this world literally reshapes her relationship with the things that are. This includes love and loss, hope and grief. Ignore the film's west-centric politics and you are left with a human fable that is universal in the truest sense of the word.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.