Movie Review: Arrival
Arrival (2016) is a film about linguistics, death and grace. It’s a new movie in the sub-genre of ‘alien-landing films’, such as The Day the Earth stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977) and Contact (1997). Twelve huge shell-like alien spacecraft turn up one day, spread out across Earth. The countries in each location attempt to communicate with the aliens inside, but without success. The American military enlists linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to attempt to decipher the cryptic language of the occupants of a spaceship that has landed in the state of Montana. Her assignment is to discover how to ask the aliens “what their purpose on Earth is”.
Tensions escalate as nervous governments across the world mobilise their armed forces in preparation for possible conflict. Louise initially tries to interpret the alien signals by using simple universal concepts. However, a single concept can be expressed differently. At one point the Chinese military translates an alien ideograph to mean “weapon”, whereas Louise takes it to mean “tool”. Concepts are also experienced differently, and this changes the way they are communicated. The aliens, who can travel faster than the speed of light, perceive time non-linearly, thus making their communications particularly baffling to humans. They also use a strange script. Circular inkblot-like ideographs form individual palindromes (that is, phrases or words that read the same backwards or forwards, such as noon, level, reviver, etc). The film provides some fascinating insights into the mechanics of translation, especially the need for context, meaningful interaction and understanding in order to build a workable vocabulary and communicate successfully.
From the beginning of the film, Louise’s character is haunted by sorrow, especially by memories of her daughter, Hannah, who died as a teenager. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015) handles Louise’s grief without becoming maudlin. At the risk of giving away an important plot development, we learn that Hannah suffers some sort of terminal illness. However, she is neither aborted nor euthanised, but simply loved and then cared for. Significantly, Hannah’s eventual death has meaning in the larger scheme of things – and not as a sentimental sop either – which makes the film surprisingly pro-life. Most importantly, Arrival is about grace, and about how grace is built around both the giving and receiving of a gift. At its broadest, grace is God’s sovereign will, his ordering of events for his own pleasure. However, more specifically, grace is about the offer and reception of a gift. Despite the scepticism of her colleagues, (spoiler alert!) Louise discovers that the aliens are offering their technology as a gift. Louise’s interactions with the aliens, and her experiences with her daughter, run parallel. Just as she realises that the aliens are offering a gift, she understands that the life of her daughter, despite her eventual death, is also a gift.
Rev. Luke Isham is minister of the Horsham Presbyterian Church, Victoria.