This week, Americans sought to speak using the common language of the ballot. Now half the country is celebrating the arrival of an iconoclastic new leader, while the other half is gripped with despondency and even fear. It's hard not to think about this when watching Arrival, an aliens-to-Earth film that’s less about first contact than first communication.
Twelve black, split-shaped ovoids simultaneously appear around the planet, each measuring 1,500 feet high and hovering mere meters above the surface. The arrival of these ships triggers immediate hysteria—air travel is grounded, gun sales are barred, food rationing begins. Looting and mass suicides follow. The world’s militaries also mobilize, including efforts to communicate with the aliens. The U.S. Army converges on a ship stationed above the green prairie of Montana, recruiting linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help translate the aliens’ language.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario; Prisoners) seems to deliberately invite comparisons to cinematic classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s certainly no coincidence that the rectangular, translucent barrier separating humans visiting the spacecraft from the onboard extraterrestrials resembles a movie theater screen. Banks gradually decodes the method of communication used by the “heptapods,” large, barrel-shaped beings whose seven tentacled legs emit an inky secretion that forms their advanced written language.
Arrival opens with a montage depicting the birth, life, and death of Banks’s young daughter, Hannah, and this personal melancholy hangs over the film and informs its ultimate destination. Like Hannah’s name, the narrative is a palindrome, with a common beginning and end. The heptapods’ nonlinear language, expressed as innumerable, circular semagrams, triggers a linguistic relativity in Banks that eventually extends to the viewer’s interpretation of the story.
These weighty concepts, so central to the source material (Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”), translate unevenly to film. Arrival’s latter half becomes bogged down in the existential themes and ponderous presentation of Banks’s transfiguration into soothsayer and then savior, which stays stubbornly esoteric.
Resonance remains in the juxtaposition between Banks’s linguistic aims and the response of divergent, suspicious nations. After scientists misinterpret a heptapod symbol as referring to the use of a “weapon,” the reaction of world and military leaders is akin to a police officer mistakenly believing he hears the word “gun” during a traffic stop or a political rally. Rogue, trigger-happy soldiers take matters into their own hands. The plug is pulled on a broadcast interface that experts around the globe use to share resources about communicating with the aliens—each of the dozen or so split screens go dark, each noticeably emblazoned with the word “Disconnected.”
Following the results of last Tuesday's election, many eagerly expect a revival of older cultural and economic traditions, while others are protesting in the streets over the loaded meaning of “traditional.” Another opportunity to find common ground has only reinforced our strident differences. It feels like we’ve never felt more disconnected.