Movie Review: Arrival (2016)
I remember reading “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in about 1990 after a breakup with a girl I loved, and taking some small comfort in the concept of time as perceived by the aliens in the novel:
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
I was mourning the loss of this girl in my life, but, from the Tralfamadorian POV, she, or us—it, the relationship—would not be lost; it wouldn’t be gone; it would be right there. Dude, why are you heartsick over missing something that’s as clear as Mount Rainier? Just look at it. It’s right there. Look how glorious it is.
I’ve thought about this concept of time—from time to time—ever since.
Ian walks, Louise translates
“Arrival” is another tale of an alien race that has a less linear view of time than we do, but the initial comparison is less with “Slaughterhouse” than with “Contact,” the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film in which Jodie Foster tries to contact an alien race and winds up seeing her long-dead, beloved father.
This one begins (or “begins”) similarly: We get 20 or so years in the life of a mother, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and her daughter Hannah (various actresses), who, at the end, dies of cancer. The father is never in the picture. The synopsis is so expertly handled by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villenueve (“Sicario,” “Incendies”), that for a moment I flashed on Carl and Ellie’s preamble in “Up”—high praise. I particularly liked the quick cut between the young girl telling her mother “I love you” and the teenage girl saying “I hate you!”
But because it recalled “Contact,” I worried what the connection between Hannah and the aliens would be. I worried that the most momentous event in humankind—contact with an alien species—would once again be reduced to the personal tragedy of the protagonist.
Thankfully, “Arrival” is smarter than that. Dr. Jones, on her way to class, is the last to realize that 12 alien ships, looking like giant versions of the eggs from the “Alien” poster, have touched down, or slightly hovered above, 12 different places on Earth, including Montana. While China and Russia gird for war, we send in a linguist, Dr. Jones, and a scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner)—along with a few soldiers, of course. We’re not stupid.
There’s great tension, fear and wondrous mystery as they enter the ship for the first time and gravity ceases taking hold of them. I also like the early attempts to communicate—although I probably would’ve begun with “Hello/Hola/Ni hao” rather than “Human.” I also would’ve gone with “Why are you here?” before, for example, “Ian walks.” But then I’m no linguist.
The aliens—and there’s no way to state this without seeming to diminish the movie—are giant squid-like creatures who communicate with Louise from behind a glass partition. Their language is circular rather than linear. They squirt an ink-like cloud in the air that forms versions of circles that clump and form almost artistic ridges at different points. Our heroine’s goal is to figure out this language before the bastards of the Earth—Russia, China, or rogue soldiers within the U.S.—attack. Or, I suppose, before the aliens attack us. But this being an indie movie rather than a summer blockbuster, the likelihood of that is rather small.
We also get some false tension. At one point, Louise translates an alien pictograph as “weapon.” She tries to calm fears by saying that the aliens might not know the difference between “weapon” and, say, “tool.” But this is presupposing that she does, in their language. Meaning she can already parse that difference but can’t even ask them, “Why are you here?”
Seems a stretch.
And it turns out it’s not just the language of the aliens that’s circular—their concept of time is, too. And the more Louise learns their language, absorbs it, lives it, the more she begins to lose her own (our own) linear sense of time. She keeps flashing to moments with her daughter, and they’re less reveries than fugue states. She seems dazed, unsure where she is.
I’ll cut to the chase.
- Why are they here? They’ll need us in 3,000 years, which, to them, isn’t the future, but, you know, right over there.
- How does Louise save the day? By phoning Gen. Shang (Ma Tzi) and getting him to call off his attack by telling him something only he would know: his wife’s dying words.
- How does she find out Shang’s wife’s dying words? In the future, when the giant-squid aliens are part of a kind of bigger U.N., Gen. Shang will thank her for the phone call, and he will tell her both his personal phone number and his wife’s dying words. So she learns in our future what she’ll need in our present. But to her, of course, it’s all right over there.
Maybe my favorite part: The long-lost daughter is not past but epilogue. She’s the future—the result of Louise’s eventual marriage to Ian. Even her name, Hannah, a palindrome, reflects this origin. In other words, the personal story augments and deepens the story of alien contact, rather than reducing it as with “Contact.”
That said, “Arrival” is a good not a great movie. The ending is Pollyannaish—humans wreck everything, and they would most definitely wreck this. Suspicious masses would rise up and attack. But I liked that it was an effort to keep up intellectually with the movie. That’s rare. It was nice to see something smart in this dumbest month in American history.