The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey taught a tribe of apes to use bones as clubs. Why would such a vast intelligence build a device that trains animals to become conscious, just for that? Perhaps it didn't. The black slab was a gift, but not the gift of violence. Those aliens gave us the ability to conceptualize – to group things by a percieved nature. The willingness to see a bone as more than a bone was their idea; to see it as a bludgeoning weapon was ours. As in 2001, the knowledge the aliens in Arrival offer us they call a “weapon,” so we may understand that it has a use. Our inclination is to bat the information back to them with our clubs, and bash in the skull of anyone who sides with them.

Arrival goes even further in this train of thought than 2001: our violent three-dimensional instincts are acknowledged by the aliens as the very force that the weapon of their knowledge is meant to oppose. The impression you get from Kubrick of distant creator-gods toying with their art (on and off-camera), Villeneuve replaces with an insatiable optimism, one that transgresses barriers of time to become the whole human experience. He makes our lives elemental. Arrival is about a race possessed of limitless knowledge, deciding whether or not it will help others to unify their sphere of existence. The trick is that this race could be us.

This is because Arrival has a relationship with Time that doesn't belong in the dimension from which most movies are made. Infinite experiences weave fluidly -- Villeneuve has made a film in the medium of its subject. As the circular pictography of the alien language has no forwards or backwards, and no linear relationship with time, Arrival itself is palindromic. It can practically be watched in reverse. I compare it to Memento, about which this has been said. That movie played with time, but gave information to the audience linearly. Unlike Arrival, it can only be watched in one direction.

In Arrival, “twists” are not plot-focused -- they simply reveal the mechanisms so that we may understand them. There are no surprise events in Arrival that place it on a continuum of story, only planes of understanding built in layers by every detail. That understanding awakens within the audience as well: as Louise Banks (Amy Adams) opens her comprehension to new modes of thinking, the film is doing the same to us, using time and fate to colonize the audience’s expectations of their three-act universe with ... what? Some may say "enlightenment."

Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting it from a Ted Chiang story) justify this material by controlling every aspect of its reality. The first time the team boards the alien ship, time is elongated to the pace of that reality. Nothing is omitted. The camera sweeps above and below without cutting, ensuring that no time is lost in the process; the aliens invite us into their vertical, hovering monoliths with a chamber that reacquires earth-normal gravity on its own plane: the team has to “jump” from their position level with earth and “fall” onto the “floor” of the standing ship.

Terms certain on earth become relative in new dimensions and Villeneuve rightly believes that every detail of the experience of finding that out is crucial to our understanding of the lessons that a new perspective can teach us. We don’t see them go through this process again, but our minds have already adjusted to this uncertain new reality.

The humans bring a canary in a cage when they meet the aliens, to test for radiation that we are never told about or updated on. The bird serves no practical purpose in the plot. It is shorthand for the depths into which we’re traveling to meet these beings. The chirping becomes oneiric, as we discover just how deep we’ve gone. Arrival is so possessive of the audience’s conscious thought process that Villeneuve has made a film for which everything is mysterious and yet nothing is a mystery.

The ship has no discernible technology, no apparent mechanisms or sci-fi noises. Yet, the absence of function  decodes the film’s problem for us, rather than to build obscure lore. The issue is that these two races do not have enough in common to formulate even the simplest question and reply, not even the ability to understand each other's doors and windows. Even trying to do so could be irreparably dangerous to future communication: if one of us took a word, a sign, a gesture, in the context of the current situation without discovering its objective meaning in the context of the language, all future negotiations could be misaligned and lost.

First contact with an alien species is an event so complex that most films fear it or dilute it in cliché. But what if contact wasn’t a prelude to anything? Arrival is about contact exclusively, about the exchange of powerful new information centered on the insurmountable obstacle of conceptualization. It's so insurmountable that most movies don't deal with it.

Adams helps us comprehend it. Her expressions never default: they are always probing at the fragments in her head, reassigning values, asking questions. She has the look of someone lost in her own movie, which is not so unique in the realm of heady sci-fi – Adams elevates it with a subtler emotion, often appearing around her widened eyes and half-open lips, that she doesn’t intend to stay that way.

As a linguist, she has the knowledge appropriate to make her the hero of Villeneuve’s take on the genre, where normally a scientist (here played by Jeremy Renner) would have the honor. When she breaks down a sentence for the resident obligatory army general (Forest Whittaker) it becomes clear not only that she is humanity’s only weapon against the barrier to understanding, but also that the military types (all politicians, in fact) are playing the part of other films, films that would solve this problem with a hail-Mary bombing run or a shotgun barrel up the alien pie-hole. When considering the Chinese government’s increasingly violent approach to the problem of the aliens (twelve ships land all over the world), Adams remarks that their hostility is expected. Since they used Mahjong as the foundation to break the communication barrier, everything they speak and understand has become a game of strategy and opposition: the language they speak determines the way they comprehend their truth. “If all I gave you was a hammer,” she says, “everything would be a nail.”

Yes, and Villeneuve seems to say that if all I gave you was a science fiction film, everything would be a foregone conclusion. This barely qualifies as science fiction the way we conceive it. The purpose of the Heptopods’ appearance is not to incite wonderment or to prod the limits of special effects magic or even to scare people. They are meant to appear so alien, so other than us, that they incite nothing. We are the natives who mistook sailing ships for clouds when we look on them, knuckled like huge fists and wary as spiders. They are filled with portentous wavering forms and unknowable fluid. They are hauntingly unfamiliar, shrouded in mist in every sense. They are not even remotely the focus of Arrival.

Villeneuve has made a film singularly constructed as a self-representation of its content. Its most glaring flaw is a montage half-way through in which Renner recounts their progress in a stymied, docu-drama style that not only impedes the tone of the film, but actively negates its perspective, once you understand how the film works (this story can only come from Adams' voice). Otherwise, there is no barrier between the function of the film and the motivation of its story: if anything, it is like an exercise in integration. The expressionists knew about that once: they used it to concoct stories whose people mimicked the slanted shadows of their visuals. Arrival uses visuals only as a weapon to prove its concepts of language and understanding and otherness. The people are all slanted in its image.

Of all the more appropriate descriptive verbs, why do we say that babies “arrive?” They do so because we innocently conceive their coming-into-being, in the part of our hearts that remain mythic and unbound by logic, as a distance in Time. Their impending existence changes our thinking so much that they realign us to a new reality. Suddenly, every place on earth is a death-trap, every film is inappropriate, every scrap of food could be poisonous. The understanding changes every micro-reaction of the perspective. There is only "before they arrived," and now after. If every other film about alien contact is about visitors passing through someone else's backyard, this is perhaps the very first in which they arrive, changing how we view our universe and ourselves. As in the film, the film itself threatens to change everything, if we’re willing to see it as anything other than a club.


Image is a screenshot from the film: © Paramount Pictures

Cast & Crew

Denis Villeneuve

Eric Heisserer (screenplay)

Ted Chiang (based on a book by)

Louise Banks Amy Adams
Ian Donnelly Jeremy Renner
Colonel G.T. Weber Forest Whitaker
Agent Halpern Michael Stuhlbarg
Captain Marks Mark O'Brien
General Shang Tzi Ma
Abigail Pniowsky 8-year-old Hannah

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