Film #269: Arrival (2016)

arrivaldirector: Denis Villeneuve
language: English and some Mandarin
length: 116 minutes
watched on: 24 Feb 2017

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while now, because it’s circulated among linguist circles online that it’s a sci-fi movie that includes linguistics. Opinion is divided on whether it does this well, naturally, but however you feel, it’s infinitely better than the way languages and linguistics are normally treated by filmmakers.

I didn’t know much about it – people have been pretty good at not spoiling the movie, thankfully. I can’t promise anything, but I’ve tried to keep more explicit spoilers out of this review… but even small things I mention in passing here might spoil the movie in a small way, so I strongly recommend watching the movie before reading about it. In the story, Amy Adams is Louise, a linguist who’s drafted to try and translate the language of some mysterious aliens who land on Earth. Said aliens themselves haven’t been spoiled, nor has their language, so I’m reluctant to give too much away – suffice to say they look great, if a bit goofy, and the language has a unique visual design aspect to it.

My main criticism of the movie is that the central premise relies too much on the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought). The question is not clear-cut (see Through the Language Glass for a book with a more in-depth discussion of how the weaker version of the hypothesis holds water), but that was the part I didn’t agree with, and the point at which I was skeptical.

But what it does with that idea is where the film surpasses any of that. And as I mentioned, the depiction of what linguistics is, and the kinds of methods used to contact peoples that have never been contacted, is completely accurate. There’s an important moment early on where, to prove a point, Amy Adams’ character tells the story that “kangaroo” meant “I don’t understand” in some Aboriginal language, which is why it’s important to be completely sure when communicating – and she immediately follows it up to another character with something like “By the way, it’s not actually true”. And that’s more than I can say for, well, any other movie ever.

I don’t say this lightly, but I genuinely believe this is a modern sci-fi classic. I’m going to try and avoid spoiling it outright, but here’s the thing: I was very annoyed by the movie’s setup. In the opening shots of the movie, we see Amy Adams’ backstory: her daughter being born, growing up, and then dying in her teens. It reminded me a lot of Up, the Pixar movie, but for some reason I didn’t feel the same emotional impact of it. It felt like it was going through the motions somehow. Later in the movie, I was frustrated by Adams’ character having hints of what I saw as an unnecessary romance with Jeremy Renner. But, there’s a twist in the final act of the film, and although it does push the boundary of reality a bit, it’s so monumental that it instantly justified any of what came before it, adding whole complex layers to Adams’ performance and her character’s situation.

It’s one of those one-line-changes-everything twists, on a par with The Sixth Sense, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Fight Club, or any of the usual suspects you think of when you think of movies with twists (OK I hate myself for making that pun), or indeed the last film I watched, The Girl on the Train. I don’t usually get the strong feeling that I should rewatch something armed with the knowledge of the twist, but I’m getting it now. I think there’s a lot that I missed (and not just related to that – there were some lines about theoretical physics I missed too).

Aside from that, it’s a tonally coherent movie, and it keeps a level of mystery in its aliens that I don’t usually see. Parts of it reminded me of Interstellar, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in visual design – and I think its twist and ending is better than Interstellar, at least. Although I wasn’t impressed with the opening sequence, I thought the emotional aspects of the movie well-balanced by the end of the movie.

I’m probably going to watch this again. And I want to read the short story it’s based on. So watch this space. Anyone else seen this? What did you think?

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