By Zoe Li
Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, “Arrival” is expected to be one of the best films of the year. What is not expected, however, is what a film about extraterrestrials can reveal about life here on Earth.
Based on the novella, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, “Arrival”, directed by French Canadian film maker Denis Villeneuve, tells the story of an alien race of “heptapods”: mysterious, dark, cephalopod-esque creatures that initiate contact with humankind. It brings to life the characters of Drs. Louise Banks (a linguist played by Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner). Banks and Donnelly team up to discover a way to communicate with the alien heptapods, determine how they ended up on Earth and why they stayed. What they end up discovering, of course, is much greater than what they expected.
The film opens with an overview of the life of a girl, from birth to premature passing, and a reflection by Dr. Banks on the nature of memory and the confines of time. This theme is alluded to, employed, and ultimately redefined, throughout the course of the film. Dr. Banks, a renowned linguist who had done work for the U.S. military in the past, is then called on by a U.S. Army Colonel to translate a recording of what is revealed to be alien (heptapod) language, taken from one of 12 “shells” that landed across the globe. When she is unable to translate it from just a recording, she is taken to the military camp in Montana to communicate with the aliens directly.
After extensive studying and conflict between Dr. Banks and the others in the military camp, she learns to understand the heptapod’s language, which teaches her what no one else knows and reveals the meaning behind her voiceover from the opening sequence. Without giving away too much, the big question viewers are left contemplating is, if you knew how the future would turn out, would you try to change it?
The heptapod linguistic study is depicted artfully, from the process Drs. Banks and Donnelly go through to the characters of the alien language themselves. The conclusions of the study are based off of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an actual linguistic theory that language affects thought. For example, the idea that the differences in grammatical construction between Chinese and English, and the variation in the articulation of ideas, inherently affects the formation of a speakers’ thoughts. This theory is taken to an extreme in “Arrival,” as learning the heptapod language changes the way Dr. Banks sees life itself.
While primarily depicting the challenges of inter-species communication between the humans and the heptapods, the film also reveals issues of international communication between intelligence officials around the world. Although the need for international cooperation to combat an alien invasion is unlikely, the barriers to global collaboration are real and many. Examples of these barriers are skillfully illustrated in the film.
“Arrival” is not your typical alien invasion film. Rather than the dystopian science fiction world that is usually the setting of an extraterrestrial takeover, this film takes place in the present day, portraying a world that looks no different from the world outside the movie theater. This, perhaps, is one of the most frightening aspects of the film. The heptapods, while worrisome in their unfamiliarity, are in no way threatening or violent. It is the humans who create the terror and violence on their own, inciting violence and rioting in response to what they perceive as a lack of state protection. The depiction of man-made destruction, something that is all too possible, and in fact a reality in many places around the world, has a realistic quality to it that shines an accusatory floodlight back at society, rather than pointing it at the unknown extraterrestrials and blaming them for the ruin of mankind, as in traditional alien invasion movies.
Villeneuve is able to create an almost Academy Award-worthy film with a talented cast and crew. It is not until the layers of intricacy—the story of Dr. Banks as a character, the heptapod language, and the lesson for mankind—are made clear that the artistry of the endeavor is revealed. This thematic layering and nuance are what propel the movie into the ranks of potential Oscar winners.
While it is undeniably worthy of the nomination, “Arrival” will have to put up a strong fight against big names like “La La Land and “Hidden Figures” for the title of Best Picture of the Year. Its breathtaking cinematography or beautiful score might be deemed Oscar-worthy, but it will be up to the Academy whether an existentialist, modern science fiction film can rise above the competition and arrive at the top.