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Arrival (2016)

A review by Nalini Haynes

Arrival is a science fiction movie where alien ships that look like rocks you’d skip over a lake come to Earth. It’s a race to learn their language.

First Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has a baby. The baby grows up, contracts a rare disease and dies. Louise teaches languages in a college.

Then the 12 alien spacecraft arrive, hovering over seemingly random locations on Earth. Governments each approach the spacecraft in their own space, trying to break the language barrier. Rioting ensues. Students don’t turn up to class. Louise’s college is deserted.

Louise is recruited for the US program. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist, disses her. She makes breakthroughs. Ian comes to admire her.

Tensions mount when China’s approach to communication — using an adversarial game, Ma Jong, to teach language — leads Chinese officials to believe the aliens mean harm.

The aliens are creative, no humanoids here. These aliens look like a human hand crossed with an octopus. They stay behind glass, encased in a fluctuating misty atmosphere, while talking to humans in their atmosphere on the other side of the glass. Their spaceship is alien in design: even approaching the communication space requires a shift in gravity, challenging perceptions.

While Louise learns the language, her brain is rewired to embrace new concepts. Arrival uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a major plot point, taking it beyond reasonable limits (Martinelli, 2016). Although Arrival’s take is way over the top, I didn’t find it as irritating as the mid-twentieth century nugget “we only use 10% of our brain so let’s use more” used in Lucy (2014).

The difference is that Arrival exaggerates a scientific theory to discuss zero sum theory, Eternalism and human nature in hard science fiction supported by good character work and an intelligent suspense-driven plot. Lucy uses a known fallacy to try to create tension and under-utilises Morgan Freeman. No quarter given there.

Arrival passes the Bechdel Test because Louise talks to her daughter Hannah about a range of subjects, never with a man present. Everything from ‘my tickle guns’ are coming to get you to ‘you are unstoppable’. However, Louise is always ‘mother’ to Hannah, which is both a strength and weakness. It is a strength because a strong intelligent woman is nurturing, embracing all that life offers. It is a weakness because the only significant woman in the movie — the only named woman — is everything to Hannah, and the only parent Hannah really has, undermining both biological sexes as parents and adults. Overall, Arrival needs more women, some who aren’t love interests and mothers. More women scientists and soldiers would have been good.

Although the story revolves around two straight white non-disabled people, a few colored men have named speaking roles like Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and General Shang (Tzi Ma). You’d almost think they had a checklist of minimum acceptable standards. [eyeroll]

In the end, the biggest flaw in the story is a tension between predetermination and some kind of Buddhist mindfulness acceptance of predetermination. If you knew the consequences of an action before you opened your mouth, wouldn’t be silent?

I enjoyed Arrival, including the ending. The minion enjoyed the movie but thought it ended abruptly. It’s a thinky movie for those who enjoy real science fiction and exploration of human nature.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang (based on his story “Story of Your Life”)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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