Arrival (2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

movie cinema scifi review

Not "The Arrival" with Charlie Sheen, just "Arrival (2016)".

Scifi has a funny history with cinema. It started out as cheap pulp fiction about grown men in funny suits. And then history started all over with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie redefined what scifi could be, and I think broadly speaking I think of scifi movies as two categories. There's scifi, and then there's scifi. Hard to tell them apart, but one is like 2001 and the other is, well, energetic.

Arrival is slow and pensive. It's the story of a linguist trying to communicate with aliens. That's the literal plot. It's not a MacGuffen dangled in front of a string of action scenes. The actual point of the movie is to talk to some heptopods (seven legs).

New languages

It takes what must be an hour to finally get in front of the aliens. The journey there is procedural almost to the point of plodding, and it's beautifully done. By the time you see the silhouettes of the aliens approaching through their noxious atmosphere, you're genuinely anxious.

In the movie, Louise Banks is a linguist. She's drafted by the Army to enter a parked spaceship and talk to the pair of aliens inside. In real life, I'm endlessly fascinated by linguistics. I guess this movie probably skips a few steps in reverse engineering a language, but I think it does a pretty great job of faking it. If you squint a little, and tell yourself you see patterns in the coffee cup stain patterns that the aliens use as their written language, you start to believe you're really working out an impossible puzzle. Admittedly, there's no scene in which you really dig in to the language structure, but there are little flourishes onscreen when you need them. We see some of the rudimentary steps Louise takes to establish the basics. We hear her explain her logic for establishing baseline concepts, like pronouns and interrogatives and so on. The linguistics team develops an app so the scientists can quickly write sentences using the alien glyphs. As long as you're not a real linguist, I think this movie makes you feel like you get it. OK, it's probably as much as movie hackers explaining how the Internet works make people feel like they get advanced networking, but one's closer to my experience level than the other, so I'm happy to be fooled by scifi linguistics.

The 10% fallacy

If Cthulhuoid aliens talking in Rorschach aren't enough, the really scifi part of this movie is what the language unlocks. I'm not a fan of the 10% trope, the one that says humans only use 10% of the brain and that by using more you can manipulate physics with your mind and so on. It's sometimes the foundation for psionics in scifi, but it always feels more like fantasy than science to me. Arrival is a little guilty of this.

It turns out that when you really learn the alien language, your perception of your world is altered. It's a common theory that language shapes our perception of reality. If there's no word for "bitter" in your language, then arguably you can't experience "bitter". You can frame a bitter taste in its relation to sweet or sour, maybe, but you'd have no concept of "bitter", because if you had then there'd be a word for it. When Louise becomes fluent in the alien language, she starts to perceive reality the way the aliens do. Certain concepts lose the constraints placed upon them by human language. She gains a new understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

It's pretty fantastic, and if you think about it too hard then it starts to feel a lot like magic. That's understandable, because after all it's fiction. No matter how much science-y linguistic scaffolding you build around the idea that you could gain special mind powers, eventually it's fictionally sufficiently advanced that it's indistinguishable from magic.

But in scifi, it's the scaffolding that counts the most. Faster-than-light travel seems believable in Star Trek because the warp nacelles are positioned up and away from the rest of the ship. Obviously they would work. Or at least, they would work if we just had magical dilithium crystals.

Arrival spends the movie building the scaffolding for a big reveal at the end, and honestly it's amazing. It seems like an impossible task, to convince an audience that, more or less, reality itself can change just based on the language that helps you comprehend and express your perception of it. But this movie does it, at least enough for the ending to feel right. In fact, the least believable parts of the movie aren't the aliens or their magical language powers, it's the idea that military staff and government officials would be rational enough to wait so long before doing something stupid (not that they don't try during the course of the film).


The soundtrack is by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and it's really good. Lots of electronics and low drones and power chords on synth pads. There are some times when a sound plays, and you're not sure whether it's meant to be an in-world sound from an alien, or whether it's just a the music. I love when a soundtrack blurs the line that way, and I love a good synth score.

Smart or slow scifi

I don't know if this is necessarily smart scifi, because it doesn't require you to understand advanced concepts. But it is slow scifi, which isn't always good. There's annoyingly slow scifi out there, and there are movies that think you want to spend more time with them than you do. For some people, this might be one of those movies. But if you enjoy a good puzzle, then this movie may satisfy.

I probably won't watch this movie again unless I'm sharing it with someone who hasn't seen it yet. It's not as engaging as, say, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it drags on a little in some places. But it's a good movie and I'm really glad I saw it.

Lead photo by Anika De Klerk on Unsplash

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