‘Arrival’ Review | Lexicon Angel
In an episode of Radiolab from a few years back, a scholar was interviewed about his recent experiences in re-reading The Odyssey. While embroiled in the saga of monsters and reunion, the scholar was struck, upon this reading, by Homer’s bizarre use of color. He noticed that people were described as being green with fear. Sheep were described as purple, and, most notably, Odysseus found himself sailing on the wine-dark sea. The scholar began to take notes on color descriptions, and found that, perhaps bizarrely, there was no mention of the color blue.
He also found a dearth of blue in examining other ancient texts; even The Bible didn’t contain many references to azure skies. At first, the scholar posited that the human eye went through a rapid evolution in the last few thousand years, and that humans couldn’t physically see the color blue. This, however, was specious reasoning. Upon examining the colorful languages of contemporary tribal cultures, he found that some still didn’t have a word for blue. When the word for the color was introduced, however, the tribes began remarking more and more how much they saw it. The introduction of a new word changed their perspective of the world. Language evolved.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer, is is a science fiction film with the ambition to capture the gravity and the glories of the evolution of language. This is a film that blends the glorious of scientific breakthrough with the abstract catharsis of great poetry. What we say and how we say it can effect our very perception of the universe. It is ambitious, inspiring, cerebral, challenging, and moving. It’s one of the best films of 2016.
The protagonist of Arrival, played by Amy Adams, is a professor of linguistics named Louise, and the film’s only major failing is that Louise is not allowed to give more lectures on etymology and syntax and linguistic history over the course of the film. Louise is a strikingly intelligent person whose particularly analytical form of intelligence – not to mention her intellectual resolve – is depicted as something heroic and essential. She is no mere supporting egghead meant to back up a heroic pilot or weapons expert. She is the one with the vital knowledge.
Louise – in the midst of mourning a personal loss – is asked by the blustering military suits (represented by Forest Whitaker) to board a recently-landed alien spacecraft and attempt to translate their language. What do they want? Why are they here? And are they a threat? How soon can we open fire? The hotheaded military violence-mongers seen in Arrival are a well-worn and perhaps tired sci-fi cliché that goes back at least as far as The Day the Earth Stood Still, but their presence fulfills a vital thematic function, so a more forgiving viewer will be able to accept them. It’s not unbelievable that several global military powers would be eager to nuke a space alien if given the opportunity.
Once inside the massive bun-shaped alien craft, accompanied by a scientist played by Jeremy Renner, Louise discovers a race of mysterious giant faceless heptapods (in that they have seven legs) who live in a tank of mist, and who inscribe a mysterious language in mid-air, shaped out of small black clouds that are extruded from their tentacles. The aliens are of an eerie, awesome, and creepy/beautiful design, perhaps inspired by the work of Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński. Eventually, Louise will become enamored of their mysterious and complex language, and find herself racing against time to decipher it before a skittish Chinese general bombs one of the alien crafts.
But Arrival does not play like a rote thriller. Indeed, instead of climaxing with the usual chases and escapes, it eventually skews toward the infinite in examining the vast importance of language in, well, communicating ideas. The vital dramatic moment is little more than a well-placed phone call. In a parallel dimension, there is a flashier, more “Hollywood” version of Arrival, complete with slicker photography, a more melodramatic tone, bigger explosions, and a more emotionally obvious, tear-jerking climax. Villeneuve, as he has with Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario, has imbued Arrival with a slowed, almost maudlin tone that allows the emotions and the intellect to overlap. His signature mistiness serves a dramatic function beyond mere style. In a film about large ideas, shifting universal perspective, and some unforeseeable surprises, a slower, thoughtful atmosphere is appreciated.
No writer or wordsmith or anyone who has studied language will be able to resist this film. In the eyes of Arrival, language can do more than connect disparate peoples, but change our very perspective on everything.
There have been many recent Hollywood sci-fi films that have reached beyond the field of mere thrills. Films like The Martian and Gravity have depicted how space-bound good humor and tenacity (respectively) can be the most vital piece of human survival. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar sought (with mawkish non-success) to fold human emotion into the fabric of space-time. Compared to those more traditionally taut features, Arrival may play a big slow and classroom-ready. But its ambitions are large and its successes impressive. It’s glorious.
Top Image: Paramount
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.