Updated: Nov 11, 2019
How do you communicate with aliens? Most alien movies conveniently hopped this chasm with the aliens either mind reading the human and dramatically learning our language or the humans locked into a thought beam to communicate effortlessly. Arrival (2016) made this the central theme and in creative ways showed us the challenges of communication.
Louise Banks played brilliantly by Amy Adams is a linguist. She gets recruited for an unlikely assignment. Twelve giant alien spacecraft suddenly show up, hovering over random locations across the world. Unlike most alien movies where the immediate human reaction is to attempt to shoot the aliens spacecraft out of the sky and give us Independence Day style mega visuals,
here the focus is on trying to communicate with the aliens.
Louise is brought on to help that process and avoid whatever
apocalypse alien visitations are usually accompanied by.
Director Dennis Villeneuve gives us an extremely different aliens movie by focusing on one of the things that makes us most human - our communication. With the construct of aliens whose language we cannot understand he puts into focus all the communication problems that plague homes, communities, societies and the world.
“Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
The cinematography, the music and soundtrack - thoughtfully and impactfully done by Johan Johannnsson, the editing all come together beautifully powered by a one of a kind script.
Arrival’s script superbly adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” focuses on the struggle to understand and be understood. In this case the Heptapods as the aliens are called are trying to get across to the human race. When we think of communication we often focus on speaking. The movie shifts the focus to understanding; to listening. It takes creativity, it takes abandoning assumptions, it takes openness and as Louise shows it takes risk. She gets out of her suit and proceeds to the screen separating her and the aliens. She shows trust. And she is gradually rewarded with understanding.
The communication drama between her and the aliens is played out against the communication challenges humans have with each other. Louise trying to communicate with the armed forces, with the mathematician Ian Donnelly played solidly by Jeremy Renner who is assisting her and the larger communications between world leaders.
As the preface to Louise’s book goes, which Ian quotes to her: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
There are no explosions, no spacecraft crash landings, subtle CGI, no one - one combat or laser beams, just a great story told with passion. Arrival is a great movie about communication - the barriers we face and the bridges we must cross to become better communicators. If we just communicated better with each other, the world would be a better place - that is the inspiring and uplifting message of Arrival.