Hands down, this film is one of the best sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. It offers a refreshing lens to the alien first-contact sub-genre, with some brilliant acting from the main cast, a beautiful soundtrack, and an epic glance at the nature of language and its conceptual reality.
In Arrival, one average day twelve giant metallic-looking pods appear in seemingly random places across the world, levitating above the ground and defying the laws of gravity. Already, this foreshadows some of the later parts of the film by introducing the defiance of everything we know to be real and possible. We follow a prominent lecturer in the field of linguistics, Amy Banks, who leads a team to try to find a way to communicate with the aliens within the pod that hovers over the US. The film daringly explores the nature of communication and unlike many similar films which depict the aliens as creatures wanting to crush humanity, their motive is strikingly different: the aliens want to give our planet a gift.
Since the aliens communicate with inky circle-like shapes, Banks must try to decipher a series a of symbols and determine whether the aliens will be a threat. However, the clock is ticking and other nations lead by China are threatening to start a war with the aliens if they do not leave their territory within twenty-four hours.
My favourite aspect of the film is the way in which it portrays the conceptual realities that language imposes upon (and restricts) us. For the aliens, time passes in a non-linear format, which is eventually revealed to be the gift they wish to give to humans: the transcendence to greater meanings and experiences. Therefore, their arrival into time and our reality is simply another place, as they appear to be highly developed multi-dimensional beings. The film directly references the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: our language determines, defines and potentially restricts our every day experiences. Banks gives an excellent example, if one taught language in the relation to the rules of chess, every word and its meaning would be linked to victory and defeat. This is a lot like Wittgenstein’s idea of language games and the potential inability to conceptually grasp what is meant by the meanings of a language beyond our own.
Ultimately, this film is a beautiful look at what it means to communicate and presents the sheer fear of an unknown species with potentially greater power but unknown intentions. A breath-taking film and massively overrated!