Arrival/The Story of Your Life (2016) ****
Is there any consideration that gets cheated and handwaved more often in science fiction than interspecies communication? Between Universal Translators, massively polyglot star empires, and the old “we have monitored your radio and television transmissions for many years” routine, easy excuses for getting around language barriers are at least as ubiquitous as easy excuses for getting around the speed of light, and a lot of writers in the genre don’t even try that hard. That’s a pity, because communication problems are a rich vein of storytelling potential in and of themselves— just ask the people who write all the romantic comedies! Language is also a hobby of mine, so I got very excited when I realized that Arrival was going to be about a linguist trying to figure out how to talk to visitors from another world before the leaders of this one flipped out and started shooting. It’s like the producers of this movie green-lit it after consulting with a focus group consisting of me. Hollywood has taught me well over the years to be leery of exactly such promises, but Arrival delivers.
The first thing we see doesn’t seem to have anything to do with aliens at all, however. Instead, the opening sequence takes us on a whirlwind tour of Dr. Louise Banks’s cruelly abbreviated career as a mother. Crowding upon each other almost too fast to process come highlights of a young girl’s life, from birth to death on the threshold of adulthood thanks to some weird, rare, and hyperaggressive form of cancer. Scenes from this tragedy will intrude themselves on the action without warning throughout the rest of the film, and as with the snippets of marital strife in The Sixth Sense, you should make a point of watching them closely. They’re more important than meets the eye, and they don’t mean quite what they seem to at first.
Next, we get to know Banks herself (Psycho Beach Party’s Amy Adams). Turns out she’s a professor of linguistics at a small but prestigious college, and that she’s reckoned a rising star in her field. She’s well paid if her house is anything to go by, but she lives alone these days. Banks follows a strict routine, doesn’t get out much, and seems to have few close relationships except with her mother, a worrywart who is starting to exhibit the early symptoms of Fox News Geezer Syndrome.
One dreary Autumn day, Banks finds her History of Language class weirdly empty of students, and no sooner does she begin to lecture than the few kids in attendance succumb to a plague of cell phone calls and text messages. One girl then asks with somehow disconcerting earnestness if the professor would mind turning on the lecture hall television and tuning it to a news channel. Curiosity outweighing annoyance at last, Banks complies— and learns thereby that a dozen unidentified flying objects have taken up low-altitude hovering positions above sites scattered all over the globe. The nearest one is in Montana, in a fair approximation of the middle of fucking nowhere. Reaction worldwide is basically a scaled-up and more technologically advanced update of the 2001 protohumans’ initial response to the Black Monolith.
A day or two later, Banks receives an equally unexpected visitor in her office at the college. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker, from Species and Panic Room) isn’t from outer space, but he is from the army, and that’s almost as jarring under the circumstances. Weber isn’t a complete stranger, however. Some years ago, he brought Banks in as a consultant to translate the taped telephone conversations of suspected Iranian terrorists. He’s got another tape for her today, but it represents a rather steeper challenge than the colonel seems to realize. When Weber came to her before, Banks already spoke Farsi; assuming this new recording even is speech as we know it, it’s in a language that no one on Earth had ever heard until just the other day. The colonel makes a big show of hard-assed displeasure when Banks tells him his tape isn’t good enough for the job he wants done, but any linguist worth her credentials would say the same thing. And in fact every other linguist Weber talks to does say the same thing, with the result that Banks eventually finds herself going on the coolest sabbatical in the history of American higher education, flying off to Montana to try her hand at talking to beings from another planet.
The welcoming committee Weber has put together at the aliens’ landing site is a bit friendlier than the one that greeted Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but only because the colonel has the courtesy to keep his tanks and artillery out of sight behind bits of high ground and skeins of camouflage netting. Obviously he’s under orders to take as few chances as possible. Upon arrival, Banks and her new partner, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, of Dahmer and 28 Weeks Later), learn that they’re part of a worldwide, multinational effort at communicating with the aliens. Even such secretive and suspicious nations as Russia and China have committed to sharing whatever they’re able to learn with everybody else currently playing host to an extraterrestrial delegation. That’s encouraging, but the attitude of Agent Halpern (Men in Black 3’s Michael Stuhlberg), Weber’s liaison from the Department of Homeland Security, is considerably less so. Halpern is in a hurry, and he plainly doesn’t relish the prospect of cooperating with non-allies. Also ominous is the visible jumpiness of soldiers like Captain Marks (Mark O’Brien), far too many of whom act like they’d really prefer to skip ahead to the part with the shooting and the bombing and the cruise missiles. Marks’s jitters are reflected in the world at large, too, where anxiety and paranoia are rapidly on the rise. (A favorite touch: the media blowhard who totally isn’t Alex Jones— nope, not at all— blustering about firing a few warning shots across the alien ships’ bows.) Most worrisome of all are the reports filtering back from the other landing sites, where efforts to talk to the aliens are progressing a bit faster, but at a dangerous cost in clarity. It appears that the visitors are trying to give us something— or perhaps a dozen different somethings. The Chinese team, under the ultimate authority of People’s Liberation Army chairman General Xiang (RoboCop 2’s Tzi Mu), is starting to fear that the aliens’ plan is to arm us against each other with their plainly superior technology, and then to sit back and watch while we do the hard work of exterminating us for them. Banks and Donnelly don’t think that’s it at all, but even they have to concede that it’s a defensible interpretation of the facts. What they need to answer the question definitively is a breakthrough in their “talks” with the aliens that will resolve certain ambiguities which their colleagues abroad have been content to let slide— and they need it before General Xiang’s suspicions have a chance to color the work of the other eleven task forces.
For reasons I’ll get to in a bit, it feels almost beside the point to praise Arrival for being a good movie in the usual sense, but I’m going to do a bit of that anyway, since it’s kind of my job around here. This film features the most believably alien aliens in recent memory, without foreclosing the possibility of seeing them as people— indeed, as people whom you could eventually get to know and even to like. It tells a story about dedicated, intelligent folks being good at their jobs, even when their jobs are unprecedented and scary, and tells it in a way that’s fundamentally fair to all concerned. Even the characters who could be considered functional villains— Agent Halpern, Captain Marks, General Xiang— are shown to be acting toward what they imagine to be the common good of humanity. The film is also a master class in spinning excitement and suspense out of the surmounting of intellectual challenges, and although the threat of interstellar war hangs over the proceedings from the moment Banks and Donnelly arrive at Weber’s camp, Arrival is explicitly about preventing an action movie from breaking out. And although it has tricks up its sleeves aplenty concerning those interludes with Banks’s daughter, those tricks are meaningfully connected to both the text and subtext of the story. This is the rare case in which “outsmarting” the movie can mark a new beginning in your engagement with it, instead of just a smug and lazy end.
As for why all those positive things seem beside the point, well… have you by any chance watched the news at all this year, or indeed since about the spring of 2013? The simple truth is that I really needed something like Arrival right about now. With paranoia, short-sightedness, and assholism on the ascendant literally everywhere, it feels unusually vital to spend a couple hours with a story that insists upon the value of trust and cooperation. Yes, Arrival is just a movie, and a fantastical one at that. Few people watching it will ever find themselves in a truly analogous situation, and even if they did, the solution put forward here isn’t actually possible in the real world. That doesn’t matter, though, for my present purposes. What matters to me right now is that Arrival valorizes the best impulses of humanity in opposition to the worst. What matters is that it emphasizes how openness and square dealing are forms of courage, and how generosity, empathy, and patience are all forms of strength. So while it’s nice that Arrival is both a nifty puzzle box of narrative construction and a carefully considered thought experiment on the subject of first contact between human and extraterrestrial intelligence, what makes it truly an important movie at this moment in time is its power as a reminder that we don’t have to be such fucking cowards. I foresee myself revisiting Arrival a lot as the present epoch of madness grinds hideously onward.