Movies about contact with aliens are so numerous that counting all of them would probably be an impossible task. Aliens abduct, scrutinize, infiltrate, devastate, enslave, observe, attack humanity, and in those rare cases when alien’s intentions are peaceful and harmless (for example, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”), it is usually not a problem to understand them. All this only obstructs credibility and suspense, and the main question in probably 90% of alien movies is “How do they look?” or “How can humanity win?”
At the same time, many of us have had an experience of communicating with a person of different cultural origins, speaking a language completely unfamiliar to us. For example, if you are an American speaking only English, try remembering yourself walking around your local Chinatown: how much of what Chinese people there talk about could you understand? How much of their intentions could you understand? Unless there were certain actions towards you, you most likely could not tell whether you were seen as a friend, a foe, or whether no one cared about your presence.
This example illustrates the major problem with alien contact: even if Earth is someday visited by an advanced and peaceful alien race trying to establish contact, most likely both sides will be unable to understand each other. Contact means communication, and the latter is barely possible without language: it is unlikely that aliens speak English. Therefore, the problem of translation becomes extremely topical—and this is what “Arrival,” filmed after Ted Chiang’s novel “Story of Your Life,” is about.
CAUTION: Spoilers ahead!
First of all: I liked the movie, even though it has many discrepancies with the book. The book never mentioned any Chinese generals, sabotage against aliens, CIA agents, and so on. The aliens from the novel never had an intention of helping humanity overcome controversies, neither did they require humanity’s help in the distant future. In the book, there were no alien vessels landing on our planet. Nevertheless, these digressions do not spoil the movie, in my opinion. They just provide a viewer with an alternative approach to the same story, and this approach has logic that does not contradict the main idea of the source.
The main character, Dr. Louise Banks, is a linguist, who is contacted by the U.S. army, requiring her assistance in communicating with aliens, whose ships landed on twelve regions of the world. Dr. Banks agrees, and after being delivered to a military camp near one of the landing sites, meets a physicist Ian Donnelly—the two of them are required to question the aliens about their purposes, intentions regarding Earth, and mathematical and/or physical secrets allowing them to traverse the Universe. From the first day of contact, Louise understands that talking to the aliens—Heptapods (named so because of possessing seven tentacle-like limbs), will be a difficult task: their speech consists of clicking, infrasound, and groans, so both sides are unable to recreate each other’s manner of speaking.
After a while, Dr. Banks assumes that every developed culture must possess a writing system, so she makes an attempt to communicate with the Heptapods in written form; the attempt succeeds, although alien writing is surprisingly complicated: every word, sentence, or even an entire phrase consists of a circle with various sprouts growing out of it; depending on the amount of sprouts, their shape and location on the circle, the meaning of what is written can change. Heptapod’s writing is semiographic, which means that it does not reflect the sounds of a spoken language (as alphabets do) or depict words with symbols (as hieroglyphic languages do), but represents concepts of a spoken language apart from its grammar and rules. The best example of semiography is a road sign: for example, a white brick on a red field is impossible to explain based on English grammar: it is not a character, not a sequence of letters, it has no syntax, but its meaning is still known to most people.
Anyways, Dr. Banks realizes that Heptapod’s writing is in fact a separate language, which is not only complemented by the sounds aliens produce, but is also able to convey much more meaning and context than their “oral speech.” While learning the language, she also realizes that Heptapods have a completely different way of thinking: it is not linear or causative, as in the case of humans, but rather simultaneous, embracing the past, the present, and the future all at once. As Heptapod’s writing reflects their way of perceiving the world, by learning it, Dr. Banks gradually becomes able to glance into the future herself. The memories about her child, scattered across the movie every now and then, are in fact her memories about the future. Using her new ability to perceive the future as if it is a part of a present moment, Louise prevents an international conflict, helps aliens fulfill their mission on Earth, and finds the father of her future child.
Unfortunately, “Arrival” does not explain much. If the plot description above seemed a bit messy to you, it’s not my fault: in fact, the movie is unable to convey all the depth raised by Ted Chiang in his novel. “Arrival” does not explain much about how and why are aliens able to see the future; it does not elaborate on why Louise chose to conceive a child even though she knew what would happen next (since this review is full of spoilers anyway—Louise’s daughter will die young); “Arrival” does not expand on the details of alien grammar and writing—and it was probably the most amazing and exciting part of the literary source! What the movie does is tell people: “Okay, aliens know the future, Dr. Banks learns their language and becomes able to see the future herself, you guess the rest.” “Arrival” desperately lacks details; the movie creators focused on Louise’s memories and conversations with aliens, but completely forgot to explain the tremendous gap between Heptapods’ and humans’ mentalities, and without it the movie’s storyline, the characters’ motives, and the role of Heptapod’s written language remains unclear.
Apart from this, the movie is okay. Amy Adams as Dr. Banks is convincing; as for the rest of the actors, they are good enough for their roles. Although the movie possesses few visual effects, I liked the design and the colors used in it: the absence of bright saturated colors, bleached green-grey gamma help to create realistic and credible atmosphere—as if you are watching a documentary, or news. I also enjoyed the parts where the director showed humanity’s reaction to the alien visit: religious uprisings, xenophobia, militaristic paranoia, mistrust, hope—even though I cannot remember these moments being described in the novel. All this conveyed the atmosphere of surprise, tension, and uncertainty, which I believe would indeed emerge on Earth if we once noticed alien vessels hanging in our planet’s orbit. I cannot remember anything related to its sound and music: compared to the epic soundtracks from “Interstellar,” “Arrival” seems kind of numb to me.
If you want to watch “Arrival,” please do not rush to the cinema; take your time and spend a couple of hours reading Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” first. It is short, and I bet anyone can read it in a day or two. However, this book will give you a detailed, scrupulous picture of the world Dr. Banks lives in; you will be able to understand the movie much better, and you will definitely exit the cinema more satisfied than in the case if you did not read the novel first. I would grade “Arrival” at 6.5 out of 10, but only because I knew what was going on. A good movie, but it did not use all of the enormous potential of Ted Chiang’s story.
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