Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.
It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.
Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.
What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously, front to back, in a perfect cohesive composition. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.
Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.
Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.
Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.
So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.
The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.
I very much enjoyed “Arrival” the film, but I liked the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chang, on which the film is based, even more. I recommend it. And seeing the film first doesn’t take away from the short story. If you decided to read it, I hope you enjoy it even half as much as I did.
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Thanks for the recommendation! I recently watched the original Walter Mitty and read the short story by James Thurber. It does become an interesting game of compare and contrast.