Arrival (2016)

…in the end, Arrival is alien movie that isn’t about invasion or war. While we get a deluge of films like War of the Worlds and Independence Day, they are just as likely to come in peace, seeking to communicate with us. And surely attempting to communicate and understand aliens is a far more intriguing and complex concept than trying to kill them.

In order to understand the aliens, you need a good linguist and Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is the best. She teams up with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to crack the alien language and communicate with them. They do this under the watchful eye of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who is suspicious that the aliens might not have the best intentions.

Linguistics sounds like a boring subject for a movie, but Arrival makes it fascinating. It helps that this isn’t any language known on earth. It’s alien and bizarre and intriguing. And understanding a language shapes how you think. For these aliens, time is not experienced as a linear progression of events, but as a loop, symbolized by the circle that makes up their sentences.

This language takes on the structure of the film and speaks to the way film can often go on the bounds of linear time. Sure, there may be a progression of scenes, but they can be told out of order or fold back in on themselves. Cinema is it’s own language, abstract and able to go beyond the conventional bounds of time.

Director Denis Villeneuve along with cinematographer Bradford Young capture the film with this grand, majestic scale. It’s a similar approach to the one Villeneuve used in Sicario. Here we see these mysterious black curves floating in the air, towering over the landscape. They’re reminiscent of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another obvious influence is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both films are more about making contact and communicating with aliens. But while Close Encounters is more about a personal, spiritual connection with the aliens that draws people to them, Arrival focuses on how language reshapes our understanding.

This isn’t to say Arrival is a cold film. There’s a strong subplot running throughout the film involving Louise’s daughter which is tender and sweet. While the aliens might be this mysterious and distant thing, there’s a lot of humanity to be found in them and in the human characters.

Cinema will be hard-pressed to make a film this year more thoughtful, grandiose and beautiful as Arrival. It’s a film about the fabric of language and the language of cinema and how that shapes our understanding of the world. Few subjects could be more important and essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us. I felt like I haven’t done this film justice. Let’s start at the beginning…

© 2016 James Blake Ewing