The idea of a direct encounter with an alien life form is certainly not new, neither to literature, nor to cinema. From The war of the worlds by H. G. Wells, passing through 2001: a space odyssey, Solaris and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival, in telling an hypothetical human contact with an alien population, decides to adopt an off-centre point of view, whose originality owes much to the brilliant idea of the story that inspired the film (we get there in a moment).

Villeneuve, the Canadian director of Enemy, Sicario and Prisoners, depicts the story of Louise Banks (in my opnion, one of the two best performances this year by Amy Adams; the other is Nocturnal animals by Tom Ford), an internationally renowned linguist who is hired by the United States Army to find a way of communicating with the guests of one of the twelve alien ships suddenly appeared on the Earth. In Montana, Louise finds herself in a military camp – that visibly represents the American reaction to an undesired arrival of something that almost certainly will be a threat – and begins to speculate a linguistic approach with the aliens, together with the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), head of the team of scientists.

Eric Heisserer’s script (author also of Lights out) is adapted from Ted Chiang’s science fiction story with which it shares much, but introduces also some substantial differences. Chiang, though not such a prolific author, has already won several literary prizes and he is considered innovator of the genre.

The most interesting aspect, central theme to both the script and the story, is the problem of interacting with a form of life that could base the way it communicates on paradigms entirely different from those of humans. So while the physicist Donnelly proposes as the most obvious solution the language of mathematics (“Let them see a Fibonacci sequence, they will understand”, reads one of Ian’s line), Louise realizes that they must start from the very basics and retrace the foundations of communication, passing through a verbal and written form and thinking better of those rules that “we humans” take for granted (and Louise does that with a behavior that tastes much of a “humanistic relativism’s revenge” on the strict rational logic of science).

Why watching it

Because it tells science fiction at its highest quality, because it is a totally new point of view and because it manages to touch issues in a very profound way, but without giving up a sober style, that does not force to understand everything within the narrative of the film.

This is because Arrival is an existential science fiction film, which maintains a tense and dramatic tone throughout its duration, but does so with a sense of immersive humanity1.

The turning point, or rather the time when you have really the perception of being in front of a story “anything but just science fiction” – unfortunately Heisserer removes this part in the script, leaving only vague intuitions – is when the aliens seem to understand a well-known scientific law. While all the teams of scientists are collecting a series of failures, one group in particular is able to engage a “discussion”  on a seemingly simple physical principle, but that combines the two basic paradigms with which science expresses its fundamental laws: it is the Fermat’s principle, a law of elementary optics (we humans would say) which states that “the path of a light ray between two points is the one that is traveled as quickly as possible”. When Ian3 communicates the exciting news to Louise, while appreciating the remarkable result, as a non-scientist she is affected much more than him. The fact becomes an obsession, until she manages to combine the results obtained by studying the written language of the aliens with the true meaning4 of that one law of physics that the aliens seemed to immediately understand: the aliens’ writing is closely linked to their conception of time and reality. Saying that “light travels always the shortest path” means assuming that light already knows from the beginning its destination, so it can determine the shortest route; in terms of this anthropomorphic comparison, it seems that from the light’s point of view there is no before and after. And what if the aliens as well do not conceive the linearity of time as it is for us? If they knew from the beginning the consequences of their actions, even the most trivial question, “why are you here?” – the one that the military force Louise to ask the aliens as quickly as possible – does it still make sense? In other words, having access to a unitary knowledge of the past, the present and the future inevitably compromises the concept of free will.

Not only the aliens would not be able to tell us why, but we should ask ourselves whether asking “why” even makes sense. Everything happens at the same time, and if we could see it – as the aliens do – we could not, however, prevent it2.

The alien written language is nothing more than the expression of this way of conceiving reality; also Louise, while improving her understanding of the alien language, begins to have flashed insights about her future – rendered a series of flashforward which are a little disorienting at first. She also realizes of being able to live beyond time. And, again, the story of Chiang offers a beautiful human metaphor to understand.

Living beyond time is like having a child. The moment you conceive, you already know that he (or she) will suffer, but there is no going back. He did not choose to live, and neither you had been able to choose his birth2.

In Arrival, Villeneuve manages to touch these issues with a delicacy and depth that Nolan’s Interstellar had just mentioned, focusing more to achieve coherence and realism as close as possible to the scientific truth (and, perhaps, getting a bit lost in the path).

On a technical level, the cinematography of Bradford Young, essential and almost pale, reaches the purpose of keeping the eyes anchored on the human level, without ever resorting to neither more extreme representations nor evocative, as the hoary old theme of the immensity of the Universe as opposed to the littleness of the human condition. The soundtrack, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is impeccable in emphasizing the most landmark moments, without suffering of its minimalism.

Who may dislike?

The film may disappoint those who have more “standard” expectations from such a film, more accustomed to turbulent movies and loaded down with action (even literally, as may be the case of Indipendence Day). It is also a film with a strong emotional component, talking about one of the purest and natural forms of love, the filial one, and someone might turn up his nose at this detail that may seem jarring to the science fiction genre.

Personally, though this was definitely a precise choice of the screenwriter, I found that the character of Ian/Jeremy Renner, who plays a role of considerable depth in Chiang’s story, here in the film is almost relegated to be Louise’s right hand man until only the very end.

Despite knowing the journey and where it leads… I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.


For the sake of completeness…
  1. Review by Matteo Bordone, (in italian).
  2. Arrival according to Leonardo Tondelli (in italian).
  3. In Chiang’s short story, Gary is the name of the physicist impersonated by Jeremy Renner (Ian) in the movie.
  4. A bit technical digression: in physics, there are two main paradigms in which laws can be formulated. The most well-known is the “causal relationship”: laws that prescribe when something happens because of something else happened before or concurrently. As an easy example, think of Newton’s Second Law of mechanics: the acceleration of an object in motion is the result of the sum of the forces applied on it. This is the causal interpretation.
    On the other hand, many physical principles can be reformulated into the form of a “variational principle”, in which the law originates from the mathematical procedure of finding an extremum for a given quantity. “Extremum”, in this context, could mean both a maximum and a minimum possibile value. In the specific case of the Fermat’s principle, the time the light takes to travel is quantity that has to be minimized. Usually, quantities subjected to variational principles are related to cumulative effects over a time span (technically, they are integrals); this leads to a teleological interpretation of the events, where a certain requisite must be fulfilled: to reach this goal, it is necessary to know both the initial and the final state, the effects before the causes that happen to produce them.

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