We are nearly at the end of 2016, and thank God for that. This year has been a supremely tough one, both on a personal level, and because the world as a whole is clearly going to the dogs. Hence the extremely infrequent and erratic writing, despite the best of intentions.
When the going gets tough, I can always seek solace in movies and I have really been holding out hope for Arrival, the latest from Denis Villeneuve. I liked Prisoners, LOVED Enemy and was a bit underwhelmed by Sicario. But I knew that this one delved into questions about the nature of communication, a favourite subject of mine, as well as starring the stunning Amy Adams, so I hoped this would make it a rewarding experience overall.
The story centers around a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is chosen to head a team trying to decipher the language of aliens that have come to Earth. These aliens have arrived in 12 huge vessels hovering over different countries around the globe. Her task is not only to make sense of the in-human sounds of the alien language, but to share her findings with other teams around the world, in an atmosphere that is growing increasingly tense and hostile with each passing day that the aliens remain on Earth. No one knows what these creatures are here for; do they mean to harm us or help us?
What then unfolds is a story that is more about humans than it is about aliens. It is an intelligent, but not cold, examination of our human flaws and foibles.
The script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, deftly handles the very tricky and seemingly un-cinematic subject of linguistics. It also introduces a believable “aliens just arrived on Earth”-scenario, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other films that are all screaming hordes and shouty army sergeants.
And how refreshing it is to have the hero of a film be a professor of linguistics! Watching Louise puzzle over the aliens’ attempt at communication alongside her colleague, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), was, to me, just as exciting as any action scene. As a bit of a linguistics nerd, I savoured the theoretical discussions about language and the way we construct it and it constructs us.
Amy Adams is, as per usual, just a delight to watch. We see our own wonder and curiosity reflected in her face as she slowly gets closer to the aliens she is studying.
All of the fantastic elements of the film are then held together by the most incredible score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The score is a beautiful combination of otherworldly sounds and mechanical noises with an undercurrent of indecipherable vocals that lend the tracks the same human warmth that is pulsating throughout the film.
And this is where Arrival really stood out for me, and gave me some peace in a worrying and stressful time. The movie doesn’t just grabble with theory. It elevates – and yes, stretches – the ideas behind the theory, and applies it to the narrative in a way that clarifies the human impact of these ideas.
What if your greatest gift would also cause you the greatest pain? Would you embrace it, or would you fight it? The science may not hold up to close scrutiny but, as with any great science fiction story, you need a healthy dose of fiction to go with the science. Great science fiction is never just a showcase for shiny spaceships, cool robots and scary alien creatures. At the core you have to have a human story that helps us see our place in the world more clearly. And, after Arrival, I do.