I have always been a sucker for the “first-contact” subgenre of sci-fi movies – films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, District 9 and, at the very genesis of the genre, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Distinct from the usual sort of sci-fi that re-imagines westerns or war movies with ray guns and space ships, these films try to imagine how humanity would cope with an alien race that has built a civilization without our history or cultural references, and the existential crisis this would inevitably provoke.
Arrival was released just at the end of 2016, to good reviews, often baffled audience responses, and the likelihood of a few Oscar nominations in the technical achievement categories. Directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve and based on a short story by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, it begins somberly, with the death of the teenage daughter of a professor of linguistics (Amy Adams) to an unnamed form of cancer.
It’s a powerful note to strike before we even see a spaceship. There are few things more tragic than a child dying before its parent, and this sorrowful note rings through the film even when the aliens arrive in massive ships that look like big river stones standing on end. This is where the film is very nearly at its most conventional, since this scene is a first-contact ritual: Crowds glued to their TV screens as information and access are choked off by governments and military; rioting and mayhem when the rules of society collapse as the foundational concept of human uniqueness vanishes; the conscription of experts to try and communicate with the aliens and discover their intentions before the military decides on a pre-emptive attack.
Adams’ linguist is called upon to spearhead one team alongside a physicist played by Jeremy Renner. They enter the aliens’ vast, minimal ship and begin trying to forge some understanding with a pair of extraterrestrials who resemble huge octopi minus one limb, and face the massive task of deciphering both their groaning, wheezing vocalizations and their written language – a collection of circular glyphs that contain whole sentences in an inscrutable code.
The sense of loss that Adams’ character seems to carry into the story is apparently a kind of armour for her; while the rest of the world is overwhelmed with fear and confusion, she takes to the task of communicating with the aliens like she’s grasping for a lifeline, thriving with the purpose of divining the aliens’ intentions before the worst case scenario unfolds – which centres around a trigger-happy Chinese general and the provocative meaning of “use weapon” in the latest alien conversation.
First-contact movies are a philosophical exercise masquerading as an entertainment, and one with profound spiritual implications. They’re a by-product of a culture that has been secularizing with growing speed for over a century, but they touch on every kind of theological idea and heresy, flirting with Gnosticism and imagining the aliens as both devils and gods – or even God. When made with intelligence and skill, you can feel the spiritual yearning in every shot, the desire for an answer even if – absent any actual aliens – we’re really just asking ourselves the question.
Finally, Adams’ linguist has her eureka moment with the realization that the aliens don’t share our linear sense of time as much as a circular one. It’s a conceit, to be sure, but sci-fi lives and dies by its conceits, and ever since Einstein our ideas about time have been challenged in the theoretical realm even as we continue to live firmly embedded in the eternal present, looking back on a past we misremember while anticipating futures we perpetually imagine as bleak and dismal.
With her discovery the film starts to become very conventional, amping up the suspense with rogue military officers, the Chinese general, and the threat of a war we can’t possible win that goes back to The Day The Earth Stood Still. None of this was in Ted Chiang’s original story, so you start imaging that Arrival – like so many other first-contact films – will squander its promising ideas and ambition and land with a disappointing thud like any other movie techno-thriller dressed up in sci-fi clobber.
Which is where the Villeneuve’s film does something that’s both remarkable and, apparently, confounding for some of its viewers. Like anyone mastering either a language or musical score, the linguist starts thinking not only in the aliens’ language but with their sense of time in many dimensions. The weapon turns out to be a gift, albeit one with a weapon’s potential for mishap and danger and pain.
Without wanting to give too much of the film away, Arrival begins to spiral headily to its conclusion making its characters – and audience – think about choice and life and family instead of aliens and spaceships. It’s a film that sets itself up to ask some very serious questions about humanity, the universe, and our millennia-old cosmology being shattered in a moment, and ends asking one final question – “Do you want to make a baby?” – to which the only possible answer is “Yes.”