This post contains spoilers.
Communication is at once one of the great themes of fiction, and the very stuff of most fiction most of the time. Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is a ‘first contact’ film that holds in check spectacular views of alien spacecraft and scenes of high-tech battle, and instead focuses most of its energies on dramatising the attempts of a group, organised and commanded by the US military but led by two professors (one of linguistics, one of physics), to communicate with a pair of newly-arrived extra-terrestrials. It is very much a film about communication, and one that has been warmly received in many reviews. But its view of communication – and especially of how we might overcome our limited human skills in this regard – seems to me to mainly waver between the peculiar, the limited, and the naive.
Arrival makes sure that its extraterrestrial visitors are not those suspiciously human-like beings we often encounter in science fiction. Its aliens do not, like us, have melon-like heads (presumably housing cortices just as oversized as our own) balancing on broomstick bodies, a pair of eyes (furnishing, we can often presume, stereoscopic vision), a mouth for talking (and perhaps for breathing), two legs to walk with, and two arms to manipulate objects with. We may scoff, with good reason, at these concessions to our species-chauvinism in much science fiction, but such a set-up, once granted, does at least have the virtue of warding off deeper problems, further down the line.
The first major breakthrough in communication with the pair of octopus-like creatures, floating in the fluid beyond a screen in their spacecraft, comes when Louise (Amy Adams) courageously sheds her protective suit, and engages in a ‘proper greeting’ – she touches her hand to the surface, and is responded to with a reciprocal tentacle-pressing gesture. But though nice, this is an isolated and unassimilated gesture in a film for which successful communication is principally a matter of attaching labels to objects, actions or concepts, and combining those labels in a comprehensible grammar.
Louise begins where we often begin with human infants, with naming and pointing. (I’m nitpicking, but should we take it for granted that a different, digitless species would understand pointing?) She first, with a miniature whiteboard and some pointing, identifies herself as ‘human’, then introduces herself as Louise. She gives the sceptical colonel in charge in the operation, who just wants to find out why these damn creatures are here, a mini-lecture on why this elementary stuff is important. Breaking down the question that the military want to get to (‘Why are you here?’), she explains that it relies upon an understanding of, and a linguistic communication of, at minimum, intentionality, a request for information, and reference. These are indeed huge difficulties, but after this lecture, they are made short filmic work of. There follows a montage which is intended to cover the gaps, but has the effect of confessing them. We see Ian (the physics professor, played by Jeremy Renner) walking backwards and forwards in front of the screen, while Louise holds up a sign that says ‘walking’. We can only assume that it is through similar mimes which we are not shown that the the humans and the aliens manage to arrive at the impressive shared vocabulary, which the montage shows us blooming, for much more abstract concepts, such as cooperation, gifts, tools, and weapons.
The film makes great play out of the semantic distinctions between terms such as ‘tool’ and ‘weapon’ – the kinds of distinctions that matter in attempts at cross-cultural – but still all-human – understanding, diplomacy, and so on. But it buys on the cheap the assumptions that a) a species with such a different set of biological imperatives, evolved in a different environment, from our own, would find such concepts meaningful, and b) even if they did, that species would be able to intuit enough about our priorities and concerns to see (from a mime?!) what constitutes a tool for us (or a threat, or a gift, or something pleasurable, or fearsome…) and so light on the right term from their vocabulary to match to ours.
Perhaps none of this matters. The film’s lack of interest in the aliens for themselves is demonstrated by the fact that we learn virtually nothing about their culture, or species-being (do they have humour? rivalries? orgasms?). Perhaps what matters is the film’s ability to deliver us to new insights about our own in-species communicative situation.
In another talky mini-lecture scene that comes around two-thirds of the way through, the film lays some groundwork for a premise that will become important later. Ian tells Louise he’s been doing a bit of boning up on linguistics, and he’s come upon an idea that she helpfully labels for him: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is the idea that the language we use affects how we perceive the world. Or determines, if we want to go with the stronger version of that hypothesis. If we lack a word for a particular concept, that concept simply does not exist for us. The scene stops at summarising the concept; we are not, understandably, given a discussion of its merits.
The thing that ultimately ties the film together, conceptually and structurally, is its taking of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a fantastical direction. This step comes when Louise achieves fluency in the alien language, and finds that this allows her to ‘perceive time the way they do. It isn’t linear.’ This cognitive upgrade allows Louise to time-travel in her mind, and we gradually come to realise (or have it further confirmed, depending on your degree of suspiciousness or genre literacy) that the fragments, first seen at the very beginning of the film, of Louise’s daughter growing to her teens and then dying of cancer aren’t things that Louise is remembering from her past before the arrival; they’re things she’s seeing in the future after it.
I take it that the film isn’t trying to convince us that given the right grammar, we’ll be able to see the future. What ideas does it want to deliver us to by its end?
Louise and Ian are in fact only the most successful would-be communicators to one alien spacecraft and its inhabitants, out of twelve such craft that have descended simultaneously across the globe. This allows the film to pursue political commentary that maintains a patina of high-tech edginess but is ultimately underpinned by a worthy but useless platitude: we need to set aside our differences and suspicions and co-operate. Worse still is the structural device used to stave off disaster and save the day.
China’s General Shang, whom we have viewed from a distance during the film’s middle-third as a belligerent military type, makes the decision to stand down when Louise manages to reach him on his telephone and tell him his wife’s dying words. (What they were? What they will be? Presumably the latter, though unless I missed it, the film doesn’t quite make it clear.) I will leave aside the question of whether this creates a temporal paradox (it is when he approaches her at a ‘unification’ ball to thank her that General Shang gives Louise his number – and possibly his wife’s dying words – with the clear implication that she will need them for earlier). The broader problem is the film’s solving of a world-threatening crisis and its simultaneous redemption of a trigger-happy general through his love for his wife. We all know that brutal soldiers and dangerous narcissists can, under the right circumstances, be as sentimental as the best of us, and once again the film proposes a simple and sentimental solution to a near-intractable problem.
This plot device also points to the limits of Arrival‘s imaginative horizons. You have just found out that we are not alone in the universe. You have participated in successful cross-species communication, furthering world peace, and fostering inter-species, inter-planetary concord. You have learned a new language that allows your mind to travel in time. What are you shown, at the end of the film, to be doing with all this? The answer: mainly, devoting time to playing endless reruns in your head of exquisitely-lit fragments of your life with your daughter.
I do not want to sound heartless, and in fact the place the film takes leave of us may constitute a moment of honesty, albeit perhaps inadvertent. Near the end of the film, Ian turns to Louise and tells her that he’d always had his head pointed to the stars, and it took this experience to bring him down to earth. The real transformation he has undergone, he tells her, wasn’t meeting ‘them. It was meeting you.’ (Renner and Adams play the scene in a way that avoided at least the surface texture of saccharine, but at the cost of feeling, like most of the film, I thought, somewhat flat.) Perhaps this, ultimately, is a truth of human communication worth taking away. Open up the wonders of the cosmos to us with science, exploration, and discovery, and we’ll still, most of us, find principal fascination in other humans, especially kith and kin, and our emotions towards them.
At the risk of kicking the boot in one more time though, the film would have been much improved had it offered us this piece of truth about ourselves either more critically or more joyously than it does. What we get feels like emotional wallowing. It also uses a by-now cliched and artistically-compromised vocabulary to deliver it. The moments Louise keeps returning to are also utterly safe in their aesthetic perfection. We are not quite given pure happiness, but the closest that these images get to acknowledging the ambiguous, messy mix of feelings and priorities that characterise most of our moments on earth is to lace their picturequeness with poignancy.
Arrival is a film about communication that is less illuminating and less honest on that topic than many films which do not treat it as a central topic of concern (the first filmmaker who comes to mind as I write this is Frank Capra). Its scenes of alien-human interaction render invisible so many of the things upon which successful human-human communication is built, making the film a frustrating one to try to think about communication with. Its scenes of human-human interaction rarely sparkle, and do not put up much of a fight with set design and colour timing in terms of the overall visual impression the film leaves one with. My sense is that the film was aiming for subtlety and a form of realism in the muted reactions and downcast demeanours of its principals for most of the film. The film’s seriousness becomes one of its major liabilities, tipping into a po-facedness of tone and an earnestness of sentiment. Because of these choices, along with its blind spots and failures, the film leaves us no better able than when we started to appreciate the true miracles of human communication.