[WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS. I can't address the movie's deeper issues without also revealing major plot elements, so if you don't want the plot revealed to you, you'd do well to stay away from this review until you've seen the movie.]
That summary leaves a lot out, but it'll do for the moment. More concretely: twelve alien ships suddenly appear around the planet, always materializing somewhere more or less temperate, disdaining the earth's climatic extremes. We Earthlings are unable to determine what material the aliens' ships are made of; we're equally unable to establish whether and how the twelve vessels might be communicating with each other. Teams all over the world—generally, a combination of scientists and the military—begin working furiously to answer basic questions about the alien ships and about the aliens themselves.
When we first meet Louise Banks, she seems to be remembering her daughter—how she was as a newborn, then as a little girl, then as a teenager with an unnamed terminal illness. These remembrances are accompanied by a voiceover narration. We learn that everything changed for Louise the day "they arrived," and the movie's focus shifts to Louise's job as a professor of linguistics at some university. The arrival of the aliens has caused most of Louise's students to abandon class; via the news, Louise learns that the aliens all arrived simultaneously, their twelve ships dotting the globe. The ships, which are as tall and wide as skyscrapers, simply float inert above the ground, not doing much of anything, while human beings set up camps and perimeters, beginning the work of examination and, if possible, communication.
Louise, while in her office, meets Colonel Weber; the meeting is tense, but Weber plays a recording of alien "speech" for Louise in the hopes that she can begin to decode the language. Louise says she needs to be on site to speak with the aliens directly, and while Weber is initially hesitant to allow a civilian too close to the Montana site (one vessel, having chosen the US mainland, sits in a fairly empty area in Montana), he eventually relents. Louise goes to the military encampment and, along the way, meets Ian Donnelly, the theoretical physicist who thinks science, not language, is the cornerstone of civilization. (There are several subtle and unsubtle nods, throughout the movie, to Carl Sagan's novel Contact, which was predicated on the idea that we'd most likely be using math to initiate communication with an intelligent alien species. "Arrival" acknowledges the significance of math, but its focus is primarily on language and cognition.) Soon enough, Louise and Ian join Weber and a team of soldiers to take a foray inside the alien vessel. This is obviously something the military guys have done more than once before Louise ever arrived on scene.
The trip into the alien ship is a bit surreal: gravity flips ninety degrees just inside the vessel, such that the humans must jump up to reach the new gravity zone, then quickly reorient themselves if they want to land on their feet and not fall on their faces (as Ian does). The humans then walk along a dark, rectangular tunnel until they reach an immense, transparent wall, beyond which is nothing but a spooky mist. The humans set up their equipment, then wait for the aliens to appear. When they do, we're treated to the sight of immense, squid-like creatures whose thick tentacles appear to be jointed. Six of the tentacles are oriented slightly forward, with one tentacle in the rear. (Imagine using your hand to mime a spider crawling across a table: four of your fingers are forward, and your thumb, very un-spider-like, is bringing up the rear. Now imagine the same spider-mime, but you have seven fingers—six forward fingers plus one rearward thumb.) These are the heptapods, as the English-speaking humans eventually name them; when Louise and Ian begin tentatively to communicate with the aliens, Ian suggests calling the two constantly reappearing aliens Abbott and Costello.
Much of the rest of the movie is devoted to two major stories: the "A" story is an exploration of the heptapods' written language, which apparently has no correspondence with the aliens' spoken language; the "B" story is a depiction of various human reactions, both worldwide and within the Montana military encampment, to the presence of the aliens. Many of these reactions are fearful, and a rogue group of soldiers in the Montana camp decides to take matters into its own hands and blow up the Montana vessel. The "A" and "B" stories are also presenting us with two very different worldviews, and the way this has been done is inevitably political: one worldview is that of openness and intercommunication motivated by a desire for understanding; the other worldview is rooted in xenophobia and militarism—the belligerent desire for self-defense that springs from primal (and willful) ignorance. If you're hearing "Let the immigrants in!" versus "Build a wall!", you aren't far wrong.
The question—meant for the aliens—that drives the Montana encampment is, "What is your purpose on Earth?" We ultimately learn that the aliens are offering a gift: their language, which Louise is beginning to understand at a more-than-superficial level. The aliens' "written" language has been described, by different reviewers, as looking like circular coffee stains, or like constantly moving ink blots composed of clouds and tendrils. Both the movie and the short story on which it's based, Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," describe the aliens' language as semasiographic, i.e., a non-phonetic writing system whose elements are signs, not letters or characters that might have a corresponding phonetic value. (Think of a heart drawn on a whiteboard and symbolizing "love." You can express the concept of love by writing "L-O-V-E," or you can draw a heart. The latter is semasiographic communication.) Louise begins to realize that, for the aliens to write their "sentences"—whose syntactic elements are so utterly interwoven as to represent a simultaneous explosion of meaning that must be taken in all at once—they have to know how the sentence ends the moment they begin writing. This leads to the further realization that the aliens must in some sense know the future, and that their writing system is merely a realization, an articulation, of everything-at-once. The aliens, Louise guesses, see time and all phenomena nonlinearly: in a sense, the heptapods see the universe's unfolding not as an unfolding, but as a great now.
So here are the movie's two major revelations: first, the aliens' gift of their language is precisely to help humanity experience time in an utterly different way so that humanity, three thousand years hence, can help the heptapods with a future crisis. And second: Louise, among the first to truly understand and appreciate this gift, realizes that her remembrances of the daughter who dies as a teenager aren't actual remembrances: they are flash-forwards of a daughter who, from Louise's time-bound perspective, hasn't even been born yet. Louise's seeming reminiscences from the beginning of the movie were, all this time, glimpses of the future, which became accessible to her when she began to learn how to communicate with the heptapods. The emotional crescendo happens when Louise, now aware of her future, realizes she will fall in love with Ian Donnelly, have her daughter, lose Ian through divorce, and then lose her daughter.
The film ends with Louise and Ian embracing after the heptapods have departed, and when Ian asks in a whisper whether Louise wants to make a baby, she whispers back, "Yes"—accepting her destiny, and fully understanding that time runs neither backward nor forward, but is instead something omni-actualized and self-complete. This brings us back to Louise's voiceover meditation at the beginning of the movie: "But now I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings." The movie is itself a loop; Louise's narration comes from a point that is, strangely, outside of time. The Louise who is speaking isn't necessarily the Louise from before her daughter's birth, nor is she necessarily the Louise from after her daughter's death; this is a Louise who is no longer moored to time's seeming linearity.
"Arrival" is both amazingly good and frustratingly bad. Denis Villeneuve proved himself to be a talented, thoughtful director when he made "Sicario," which I watched recently. I have no complaints about his pacing, his cinematography, or the way he pushes his actors to play their roles. Everyone performs admirably, and Amy Adams deserves whatever official kudos might be coming her way this awards season. But let's talk about the good first and the bad last.
"Arrival": what works
The very title, "Arrival," has several levels or layers of meaning. On the surface, it refers to the arrival of the alien spaceships, but more deeply, it refers to the arrival of Louise's daughter, and perhaps even more deeply, it refers to the arrival of a radically new way to picture the cosmos—a new way brought along by the aliens as a gift for humanity in return for future help (the aliens are optimistic to think humanity will still be around in 3,000 years!).
"Arrival" is an ideas movie; it wants us to think about the nature of time, cause, effect, life, and the universe at large. It wants to deal creatively with the issue of how two utterly different types of consciousness can communicate with each other. It wants us to ponder the question of fate and human freedom from an oblique angle—a perspective we're not used to inhabiting. I appreciate the movie's ambitious nature, and I think it largely succeeded in, at the very least, putting those questions on the table for thoughtful people to ponder.
"Arrival" is also a gentle movie, gently presented. It has a clever narrative structure worthy of Christopher Nolan's "Memento," but unlike "Memento," "Arrival" doesn't move in parallel time-forward and time-backward tracks: the story is more like an ouroboros, the cosmic snake that eats its own tail and forms an immense circle thereby. The movie's ending shows some of the same scenes we see at the movie's beginning, and while it's possible to piece together the movie's chronology by following the dialogue and visuals closely, the movie's obvious intent is to jolt us into thinking about the story the way the heptapods themselves think about space, time, and reality.
The movie is a somewhat sexed-up version of Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life." In Chiang's narrative, we never learn the name of Louise's daughter, but in the movie, the girl is given the name Hannah, a palindrome: the name is the same whether you run it forwards or backwards, with the implication that, for the heptapods, time, cause, and effect are just as palindromic (a fact pointed out by the physicist—named Gary Donnelly, not Ian Donnelly, in the short story: the mathematics of human physics can also be run backwards and forwards). Chiang's story, which I read a couple days ago, also never reveals the purpose of the heptapods' visit to our world; the movie provides a purpose, perhaps to create dramatic tension. The movie's one lone explosion—caused by a group of rogue soldiers who think the heptapods mean us ill—was also concocted for the movie purely to raise the tension level. In the short story, the heptapods engage in a brief-but-fascinating dialogue, give us many clues about their language, then leave. In fact, that's another movie/story difference: in the short story, the heptapods never actually see us humans face-to-face: their ships remain in orbit, but they use large, semicircular screens to interact with us on the planet's surface; in the film, by contrast, the humans enter the spaceships and interact face-to-face with the heptapods, with only a pane of glass(?) between the two species, probably because of differing breathing requirements. The heptapod language is also intriguingly sexed up for the movie, in which inky, living, squirming smoke rings are squirted out of the heptapods' tentacles. The short story is strangely coy in describing the heptapods' written language, but it does seem to be gracefully circle-shaped, with plenty of divergent curlicues along the circumference.
On a practical level, I needn't have worried about whether the movie would give short shrift to other countries' efforts to understand the aliens. "Arrival" actually does a much better job than its source material of showing how the American team operates in tandem with—and sometimes in conflict with—other teams across the world. The Yanks aren't always the first to make certain big discoveries, either: the Aussie team learns something about gravitational manipulation; the Chinese apply a dangerous game-theory approach to learning how to communicate with the heptapods; the Pakistanis make breakthroughs in decoding heptapod logograms, which are "free of time."
Continuing in a practical/technical vein, I enjoyed the movie's soundtrack, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also worked on "Sicario" with director Villeneuve. Part whale song, part chattering/chanting, part weeping cellos, plus a little of everything else, Jóhannsson's soundtrack manages to evoke a certain creepy otherness that seems atmospherically apropos for the goings-on. Jóhannsson is a good match for Villeneuve's meditative visual style; I suspect they will be collaborating on many future films.
As a student of religious studies, I've long contended that science-fiction films are often covers for smuggling in religious ideas, and while "Arrival" might want to bill itself as non-religious "hard" sci-fi, I'm pretty sure that I see some religious tropes floating around. In terms of Judaeo-Christian numerology, for example, there's the number twelve (twelve alien vessels) and the number seven (hepta = "seven" in Greek). The aliens provide humanity with an arguably deeper way of perceiving reality, which takes us slightly into Buddhist territory. Classical theism gets a shout-out, too, in the sense that the aliens' perception of reality as a singular now, in which time is not so much sequential as simultaneous, is reminiscent of the classical-theist notion of God as existing somehow "beyond space" and "outside of time." Imagine the history of the universe as a reel of film, in which every cosmic moment is represented as a single frame. Watching the film's action unfold, as we would in a cinema, is akin to how humans actually experience life and reality, but God, or a godlike being, can unspool the film and behold every frame at the same time because every frame is already there to behold. (Dr. Vallicella only just wrote a meditation on the B-theory of time, which delves into this idea.) The themes of fate and free will are, of course, the stock in trade for Western religions. The film doesn't shrink from these heady concepts.
"Arrival" is a heartfelt story that makes no bones about wanting to be an ideas movie, and it covers many notions that I myself have either studied or been intrigued by, among them the question of fate versus human freedom: if the future is already in some sense actualized, as it would seem to be from the heptapods' godlike perspective, then what are we doing other than playing out those sequential states of affairs, utterly unable to insert human freedom into the equation? That said, the movie is far from perfect, and it falls flat in certain areas where better screenwriting might have been able to rescue it.
"Arrival": what doesn't work
The picture we're given of the heptapods' written language (in the short story, the spoken language is referred to as "Heptapod A," while the written language is "Heptapod B") is deeply fascinating, but as well-done as it is, it does seem to be ensnared in a logical contradiction: the movie is at pains to insist that heptapod writing is completely nonlinear, but get this: the heptapods blow out smoke ring after smoke ring, a sequential phenomenon that is a clear indication of linearity. To get around this, the writers should have added some lines about how the sum total of heptapod utterances itself constitutes a gigantic meta-circle: all those smoke rings are to be taken as a single, complex utterance. The movie doesn't think this far, though, so we're left with the logical contradiction inherent in a faulty narrative.
Another problem is that neither the movie nor the short story really manages to untangle the paradoxes inherent in trying to marry freedom to foreknowledge. In a nutshell: if you foreknow some event, then that event must happen, or you didn't truly foreknow it. It's therefore impossible to foreknow that a person will choose a certain path: foreknowing means the person must go on that path, and choice is merely an illusion. Freedom and foreknowledge therefore exclude each other. The short story dodges this issue by saying, essentially, that the heptapods' knowledge of the future, because it comes from seeing everything as simultaneously actualized, isn't a species of foreknowledge, per se, so it's not paradoxical to believe human freedom exists even from the heptapod frame of reference. This fails to address the question of how human freedom is even possible if all moments are "written," so to speak. Saying "there's no such thing as sequential moments" merely kicks the existential can down the road; it doesn't resolve the issue in any satisfactory way.
The movie briefly mentions something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which, explained simply, means that language determines your perception of reality and how you think. While there's evidence to support a charitable interpretation of this theory (see more here; it has strong and weak forms, apparently), I don't think it's taken all that seriously, these days, by people inside and outside the linguistics community. It's surprising that the movie would mention the hypothesis at all, given its shaky status among academics, and given that it's not mentioned at all in Chiang's short story.* Personally, I don't completely dismiss the hypothesis, but I do think it's more accurate to say that language, phenomenology (i.e., experience), cognition, and objective reality form a sort of feedback loop: reality, in its brute suchness, inevitably influences how we think and talk about it, but it's also true that how we talk and think about reality determines, to a significant extent, what aspects of reality we're able to perceive. As the Tao Te Ching says: "The five colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear," i.e., once we parse reality in our minds, creating borders, it becomes hard to perceive the "platypus"—the transgressive, elusive phenomenon that straddles our mental categories. I don't think, however, that the movie believably shows that it's possible to begin seeing the future—the equivalent of acquiring a magical power—just by learning a new language, however alien that language might be.
The above are all more-or-less philosophical critiques, but I have another complaint—namely, with the movie's simplistic and painfully preachy politics. Like so many science-fiction movies before it, especially ones involving benevolent, godlike aliens, "Arrival" paints conservatives (the ones with the guns and the bunker mentality—you know them by sight in films like these) as bellicose idiots who understand only war and violence, and who have absolutely no sense of wonder or fascination when confronted with the numinous. We've seen this caricature before: in "E.T.," with the gun-toting government stooges; in "The Abyss," with Michael Biehn's crazy Navy SEAL and his last-resort nuclear warhead; in "Contact," with the conservative religious nut (played by the dentally gifted Jake Busey) who blows up the first attempt at building the wormhole device. Conservatives are the butt of every noble-alien sci-fi movie, and "Arrival" shows that it hasn't learned any lessons from the past in its portrayal of those who are circumspect about alien contact. This is a shame, especially given how mature and sophisticated the movie is in other respects. This is also the aspect of the movie that I absolutely despised—and not because I resented the portrayal of liberals as the ones advocating outreach and understanding: all I want to see, in some future film, is an opposition that is smarter, more complex in its motivations, and more articulate—people who can also be touched by the numinous and be fascinated by the unknown. It doesn't always have to be an oversimplified conflict between the educated sophisticates and the brutish bumpkins. "Arrival" ought to be better than that.
The rapidity with which Louise seems to acquire the heptapods' writing system also strikes me as implausible, but the movie doesn't reveal how much time elapses (time is irrelevant in "Arrival," remember?), so perhaps Louise could conceivably have gained a deep-enough knowledge of the aliens' writhing, circular script to have mastered it to a modest degree.
Yet another problem with the movie is its derivative nature. I linked earlier to this "smackdown" piece that very quickly launches into a litany of influences for "Arrival," which owes a creative debt to, well, just about every alien-visitation film before it. The heptapods' need for help resembles the way future five-dimensional humans must reach back in time to past humans for help in "Interstellar" (reviewed here); the heptapods' ability to manipulate gravity also recalls that film. I mentioned "Contact" earlier; another "Contact" parallel comes in the form of Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is this film's analog to James Woods's prickly and paranoid government stooge Michael Kitz, a man prone to seeing boogeymen everywhere. The sudden appearance of multiple gigantic vessels will immediately call "Independence Day" to mind, and the aliens' apparent desire to get humanity to work together will remind some viewers of the angelic aliens in "The Abyss," who were ready to enact divine Noachide retribution on all of humanity until they witnessed the unselfish, sacrificial love of one man for his ex-wife. The way the alien ships disappear, instead of hyperspacing away like the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise, will make some people think of the interdimensionally traveling aliens in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," whose vessel vanishes in a titanic, valley-destroying hurricane. "Arrival," which departs from its source material in significant ways, owes a creative debt to so many movies that have gone before it, and your own inner film critic won't fail to notice this fact.
But despite all those criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I see that it's up for eight Oscar nominations; here's hoping it wins some. Taken on its own terms, "Arrival" is a film with a heart that will also make you think—about time, about fate and freedom, about cause and effect, about what it means to live your life despite knowing for certain that that life will be painful—that it will involve love and loss, and that such a life is still better than never having loved at all.** While far from perfect, Denis Villeneuve's quiet, pensive creation hits all the right notes and will give the viewer plenty of grist for profound reflection.
*It could be argued, though, that Chiang's story is predicated on the validity of the hypothesis.
**John McCrarey calls bullshit on the loved-and-lost concept. I would not recommend that he see "Arrival"—for that and for other reasons.