Often the best science fiction is that which leaves you feeling like a depressingly insignificant speck in the limitless expanse of known and unknown space. The sensation, teetering on a knife-edge between wonder and despair, is like no other – ecstasy and agony rolled in to one. Recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar tackled the vastness of space with considerable humanity and depth – that is, before its all-too-humanising conclusion brought everything back home. While Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is similarly not without its flaws, its brilliance rests in the ability to render one incapable and insignificant in a vast, limitless universe of knowledge and experience.
Here, mankind’s salvation exists not in the exploration of the stars and seeking out of new worlds, but in the admittance of our own incapabilities and inherent shortcomings – our willingness to engage, communicate and accept ideas. Accordingly, while Arrival continues the recent trend in reserved, sober science fiction, it evokes the feeling of two classics in the literary genre: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (or, more specifically, its sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.
Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, itself now a modern classic having won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella. While Villeneuve’s film throws the possibility of global catastrophe into the narrative mix, it maintains many of the same themes as its source: determinism, language, experience and a twist on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or, linguistic relativity – a concept that asserts the structure of a language affects its speakers cognition or world view. Heavy stuff. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguist. During one of her lectures, news breaks of enormous, shell-shaped spacecraft arriving in locations around the globe. Along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise is brought in to help Colonel Weber’s (Forest Whitaker) military unit establish communication with the aliens. Unfortunately, other international powers are not as willing to wait for answers from the mysterious visitors and, soon enough, mankind edges toward global warfare. While Louise labours to piece together the puzzle of the Alien language, worldwide communication falls apart and chaos ensues. The message is fairly blatant here – the importance of dialogue and intelligent exchange is sacralised at the centre of Villeneuve’s film. Louise must decode the alien language before it’s too late.
It doesn’t take long for Arrival to make its point. After a tragic opening montage, wherein Louise recounts the life and death of her daughter, we’re immediately introduced to the extraterrestrial event. These visions run throughout the film – punctuating moments in an occasionally torpid narrative. Indeed, as Louise asserts during the film’s opening sequence, “it’s moments that define you.” Accordingly, Arrival is arranged in a series of moments, alternating between past and present. The alien spacecraft open up once every eighteen hours, so that the humans can engage with the enormous ‘heptapods.’ This regimented ordering of present events, punctuated intermittently with Louise’s tragic recollections, affords the film a ready made, ready-to-compel structure. Indeed, Arrival is so expertly paced, once the logic starts rushing ahead in leaps and bounds, we’re ready and willing to sit back and accept it. The all-important revelations, when they come, are less practical and more abstract. The didactic twist isn’t really developed to the point of substantial clarity and, unfortunately, results in an ending that’s somewhat lacking in resolution. For some audiences this will be a major problem; there are many, however, that will delight in Louise’s enigmatic discoveries.
It’s here that the aforementioned feeling of insignificance takes hold – not just insignificance in the vastness of time and space, but in a universal, timeless infinity of knowledge and experience. In Clarke’s 2001, the aliens behind the iconic monoliths impart life-changing knowledge upon humankind, provoking evolution and expanding minds en masse. In 2010, they do the same on Jupiter’s moon Europa and forbid humankind from ever visiting – yet again it’s the mysterious technology within the monolith the stops us from doing so. The monolith represents endless knowledge and an infinity of extraterrestrial experience. It doesn’t really matter that we never learn anything substantial about the monoliths or their creators (let’s forget about 2061 and 3001, shall we?). The overwhelming sensation is in what the monolith represents – unobtainable knowledge and unknowable experience. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is premised an inevitable galactic catastrophe and the scientific prediction of the future through ‘psychohistory.’ To ensure the survival of humankind, a mathematician establishes a foundation at the end of the galaxy, to preserve and expand on humanity’s collective knowledge. Again, mankind’s salvation lies in the acknowledgment of our shortcomings, incapabilities and insignificances – knowledge is power.
These themes are certainly nothing new, modern sci-fi has been toying and tampering with similar ideas since H.G. Wells sent the first men to the moon. However, Arrival, despite the odd narrative flaw and Olympian leap in logic, offers a compelling synthesis of the ideas outlined in the works above, all through an exploration of the medium of language. Many of these concepts may remain underdeveloped by the time Arrival reaches its emotional conclusion, but the abundance of wonderful ideas at work in Villeneuve’s film, compounded into a coherent, consistently entertaining and expertly performed narrative, make this a trip worth taking.
Arrival is released November 11th