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Categories: Movie Reviews

Yi Ling Huang examines Denis Villeneuve’s straight-talking sci-fi powerhouse Arrival.


How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t understand the same language? What if that someone is a ‘something’, with little first-hand knowledge of human interaction or experience of life on Earth?

Arrival tackles these questions head-on, exploring how linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and other humans communicate with visiting life forms from outer space. Based on ‘Story of Your Life’, a short story by Ted Chiang, the movie weaves in different types of challenges when it comes to communication – between humans and aliens, among humans, and between the narrative and its viewers.

Director Denis Villeneuve conveys the same intimate sense of realism in Arrival that drove his 2015 offering, Sicario. Full-length shots, dramatic sounds and extraterrestrial visualisations of gravity set the scene in Arrival, but the film shines the brightest when observing Louise.

The film extensively portrays her point of view, the narrative rarely still as it flashes between the present and scenes from different times in her life. She is the touchpoint that viewers can align themselves to. Whether she is calling Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker)’s bluff or assessing physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner)’s usefulness to the mission, she is the constant in these strange circumstances.


Seeing the world through Louise’s experiences allows the viewer to engage with events in what we assume is real time. To illustrate: Louise enters a nearly-empty lecture hall. Her students’ cellphones start beeping frantically. One of them asks her to turn on the news. It unfolds through her facial expressions, announcing the arrival of alien objects. The camera follows her, sometimes a beat off, daring viewers to notice its presence, and to acknowledge their own part in the narrative.

Events unfurl gracefully, the narrative holding back on significant plot points as Louise and Ian meet two of the aliens, which Ian dubs ‘Abbot’ and ‘Costello’. When the film reveals the concept behind the aliens’ language, it treats viewers to a delicious sense of irony. These visitors do not communicate as humans do. When the two species do communicate, the effect is a revelation, in terms of the different ways in which their languages frame time. This allows the narrative to open up to another dimension seamlessly, as the present flits to and from other timelines.

Arrival combines scientific rationalisation and an arthouse sensibility, augmenting them with big-budget production values. It is not quite a film ‘about aliens’, but a film in which aliens feature. It shies away from alien-movie stereotypes of Independence Day-style action or E.T.-esque feel-good vibes. Instead, it traverses a realm less travelled, its plot bringing to the fore more conceptual notions, like connection, memory and loss.


The obverse of communication is miscommunication, and the film thrives in the confusion. “We need to make sure that they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool,“ declares Louise in a critical situation. “Language is messy and sometimes one can be both.”

Miscommunication rather than communication appears to be the underlying theme of Arrival. The aliens communicate through sophisticated shapes teeming with inherent opportunities for misinterpretation, while governments refuse to communicate through official channels. Even the film’s narrative itself instructs and dissembles, before coming into clear focus right at the very end.

Arrival will be released in UK cinemas on November 10th and US cinemas on November 11th.


Yi Ling is a content strategist, editor, writer and photographer who has been blogging since 2003. For more of her work check out her website here: https://onthenew.wordpress.com

Posted on Nov 1, 2016

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