Arrival came out on November 11th and is still in theaters!
When I’m pitching Daniel Abraham’s series The Dagger and the Coin to a new reader, I inevitably say: “And one of the protagonists is a banker!” I say this with enthusiasm and I always forget that that’s not exactly an enticing pitch for people that aren’t as invested as I am in seeing wonderful differentness in the fantasy genre.
So, I’m not sure that saying “The protagonist is a linguist!” is the best pitch for ya’ll to go see Arrival. But it sure is one of the reasons you ought to watch this movie. A linguist as the lead in a well-produced science fiction film, as opposed to say… a soldier1, is just a healthy bit of diversity thrown into our cultural narrative around aliens. Not to mention refreshing storytelling. We’ve seen over and over how to imagine a soldier-protagonist interacting with first contact on the big screen. One of the minor delights of living in a world where people do so many different things for a living, is trying to follow how they think — to catch the differences in frame of reference, in process and assumptions. While the main plot deals with communication between aliens and humans — the subplots mostly revolve around humans communicating with humans. Arrival navigates the concerns and assumptions of the linguist, the physicist, the military, the CIA and various governments — and while it keeps all of those relatively simple, it does give them perspective.
I don’t want to talk all that much about Arrival because it’s worth experiencing unspoiled. Brad’s going to give some spoilers in a minute here — so I’ll just say that I could use a few more films like this.
I went in hoping for an entire science fiction film without any explosions.2 And I walked out in a bubble of thoughtfulness.
Warning, major spoilers to follow.
Arrival is already a movie that’s very easy to love if you’re a writer. It is literally about language and the gifts that it gives us as a species. The screenwriter Eric Heisserer not only deserves praise for that alone but for pulling off a very difficult writing trick. Non-linear storytelling is the extreme skateboarding of the writing world, and Heisserer is definitely getting points for difficulty and technique. In fact, Arrival uses your normal assumption that time in a film proceeds linearly interspersed with occasional flashbacks to screw with you. It also tricks you with the way you accept aging in movies without question.
At the beginning of the film Amy Adams is shown holding a newborn baby, then watching her teenage daughter die of an incurable disease, before aliens arrive and throw the world into chaos. And all I remember thinking to myself is: She wouldn’t look exactly the same 15 years apart…that’s kind of bullshit. But I went with it, because it’s a movie. Turns out Heisserer was starting out with the end of the story, moving to the beginning and ending up somewhere in the middle, because while a story has to have a beginning, middle and end, they don’t necessarily have to come in that order. Most movies trip over this idea, they either barely get it off the ground or they make some major mistake so their movie is either the right way around or incoherent. Arrival conceals its non-linear storyline perfectly, and by the time you start to question it, they’re giving you their big reveal.
Also, to touch on what Hanna has already said, I happened to see this with a linguist. My friend Ben really enjoyed the film, of course, but he also commented on just how accurat the linguistics in the movie was. He only really had one complaint, which is interesting enough that I’ll share with you. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that your language effects how you see the world, and the central idea of the film, isn’t definitively proven. In fact there’s plenty of evidence that shows you see the same colors no matter what language you speak. Does this spoil a movie about space squid teaching people how to speak their language which lets them see time all at once? No way! It’s still awesome and you still should see it.