The arrival of Arrival

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching a newly-released film with a dear friend – something I’d been immensely looking forward to, and not just because this week got very I’ve-fallen-into-a-parallel-universe-and-I-can’t-get-up with the election of a sexist, racist demagogue as President of the United States of America. Being able to distract ourselves with a big cinematic experience was thoroughly lovely, and while we were surprised at first by a rather large local street festival that neither of us realised was going to be on right outside the cinema doors, even that in itself was a lovely way to pass the time, wandering up and down past stalls, avoiding the heat and humidity while we could, staying out of rain, smelling and eating street food (we both got gözleme, a Turkish fried bready dish that I love but can’t often get here in Australia), and having a relatively quiet (and cold; it was stinking humid, and a storm broke later that afternoon) drink in a café we both like. So all in all, it was a wonderful afternoon’s diversion.

It was also a particularly nice experience in that I don’t go out to the cinema very often anyway, which is due to two major contributing factors. One of those is the fact that it requires some planning and psychological strength for me to do something off routine these days, and so I often find myself “postponing” going out to the cinema to take in a film until I end up missing the entirety of the film’s run. The other is the fact that Hollywood is simply not producing that many movies that appeal to me these days, and of late the cinematic industry seems to be relying for most of its punter bucks to be coming from superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and vehicles for whoever the latest Flavour of the Month is: Anna Kendrick, Bonemarrow Crunchybits, Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy. Not that I mind individual instances of these – I’m super keen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it comes out next week, for example – but on the whole, it seems that variety is rather lacking. Do we really need three separate Wolverine movies, you cats, in addition to the six X-Men films we already have? Did Jurassic World really add anything substantive to the ideas that Jurassic Park already explored? (And quite beautifully, I might add: not only was the film itself just incredible – beautifully shot, well-acted, and majestically scored – but for a film released in 1993, the special effects in Jurassic Park are mindblowing and stand up extraordinarily well even by today’s standards. What’s more, it was a rare gold star for Hollywood in the gender stakes. There were only two major female characters, but both were awesome: Lex Murphy ran firmly counter to stereotype as a teen girl computer whiz who hacked the park’s security system, and Dr. Ellie Sattler is serious life goals for me, a strong and intelligent woman with a doctorate who can be feminine, kick arse without having to wear heels to do so, and explicitly lampshade a few sexist attitudes into the bargain. While I have to confess I haven’t seen Jurassic World, a deliberate choice given that it was both Chris Pratt and a sequel that didn’t need to be done, I’ve heard that if anything the attitude towards women has moved distinctly backwards. Yet another reason not to see it.)

Anyway. I’m digressing again. Yesterday’s film was none of these: neither a superhero movie, nor a reboot, nor a sequel (nor an exhibit of Chris Pratt or Anna Kendrick). It was the science-fiction film Arrival, an adaptation of the Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I hadn’t read any of his work previously – apart from the general difficulty I have with getting into new fiction these days, Chiang is remarkably selective about his sci-fi publication, having published only 15 stories in his career (even as they’ve achieved mindblowing success, garnering among others four Nebulas, four Hugos, and three Locus Awards to date). Indeed, he apparently once even turned down a Hugo nomination because he felt editorial urging had pressed him into producing a rushed and (to him) unsatisfactory story. It seems that Story of Your Life had long been considered unfilmable, but in all honesty, I’m glad that the screenwriters persisted, because in Arrival, they’ve produced something incredible.

Alert for major spoilers from here on out, by the way.

On its face, Arrival is an alien first contact movie, and probably the most accurate portrayal of a potential first-contact scenario in cinema history, with the potential exception of Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Arrival takes the problem of interspecies communication that most other cinematic science fiction simply handwaves away if it acknowledges it at all (with telepathy in Independence Day, with the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with universal translator devices of a thousand different incarnations in a thousand other sci-fi outings), and moves it squarely into the foreground, building the film’s major quest line out of the struggle to communicate with the squidlike heptapods and discover their purpose for visiting Earth in the first place. The military is involved, as they so often are, but the protagonist of the film – and indeed, the only one we really find ourselves empathising with throughout – is an academic linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, whose performance is complex, deep, and really touching), who’s called upon by the Army to attempt to speak with the alien visitors but frequently forgets military protocols and security (in that strangely childlike manner that we academics often seem to be able to muster) in pursuit of the loftier goal of communication, often with the assistance of theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

From a purely linguistic point of view, I don’t think the process of monolingual fieldwork with a previously unknown language has ever been so accurately depicted upon film; the hesitating first steps, the breakthroughs that form a foundation upon which the rest of the language can be constructed in the mind of the learner, the rapid acceleration of mutual comprehension thereafter. The film also explores a particularly strong version of what linguists call linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that one’s language influences or may even define the ways in which we see the world, and the whole film’s premise turns out to be that the purpose for the alien visitors coming to Earth is to impart their language to humanity. The heptapods’ form of visual communication is a semasiographic system in which a single complex symbol forms an entire sentence or utterance, and the form of every subpart of that symbol is morphologically influenced by every other part. In other words, in order to start talking in this form of communication, you already have to know exactly how the utterance will end – to predict its future, in a sense. So the story assumes from this a particularly strong version of Sapir-Whorf, stating that in essence, being able to use the heptapods’ visual language can impart the ability to “remember” both the past and the future: to perceive time not as a linear progression from cause to effect, but as a single flow of temporality.

But despite realising Ted Chiang’s heptapod aliens in arresting visual form, and hinting at a much greater alien universe in which they (and we) are situated, Arrival – like the novella on which it was based – rises into a higher class of sci-fi in that it never gets lost in exposition of extraterrestrial creatures at the expense of exploring the human condition, telling us first and foremost something about ourselves, about humanity. Even though the film’s focus would superficially appear to be upon the arrival of the heptapods and the process of establishing meaningful contact, and indeed that’s the bulk of what you see on screen, it isn’t so much that as it is the story of Louise Banks herself, and by proxy, her future husband Ian Donnelly (the selfsame physicist with whom she deciphered the heptapods’ language, who she will eventually marry) and her daughter (and the fact that the primary character’s a woman is also eminently pleasing in a genre so often dominated by male characters). It’s the story of how Louise’s acquisition from the heptapods of this ability to perceive all of her life at once affects the way her life subsequently unfolds, and how it impacts upon the decisions she has to make in the rest of her life (including whether or not she should have her daughter at all, knowing as she does that her  child’s life will be cruelly cut short by a devastating genetic illness, and that she and Ian will divorce because he finds out she knew it would happen and couldn’t handle it). This underlying story, as much alluded to as depicted outright, is what raises Arrival from an already pretty gripping and beautifully realised alien arrival tale into the top echelons of philosophical science fiction, up with Interstellar and Blade Runner as some of the best deep-thinking sci-fi ever put to screen. Those looking for a standard humans-versus-aliens Explosionfest are going to walk away sorely disappointed from Arrival, but so they should. There’s plenty of room in the vast and unchartable multiverse of sci-fi for first contact films that are basically cheesy disaster-movie-style crash-and-bang cinema (which are nonetheless awesome; Independence Day is still an old favourite of mine) as well as for highly cerebral, richly emotional examinations of the human condition through the lens of a science-fiction scenario.

So I’m very grateful for being able to get out and experience one such film, and particularly with such lovely company.

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