Why Arrival should blow our minds

Director Denis Villeneuve has been slowly building a body of work that has been marked by increasingly divergent subject matter. His last film – Sicario – couldn’t be further away from his latest endeavour, Arrival.

Many of his films have been adept at changing the paradigms of the genre he operates in. This was the case with Sicario, that placed a female protagonist –  idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) — in what has traditionally been male-dominated environment as the film explored the subject matter with a distinctly female voice.

Amy Adams is the lead in Arrival, his latest genre-bending sci-fi philosophical thriller, which essentially uses the trappings of an end-of-the-world, alien-space-invasion premise to explore deeper themes of connection and the human condition.

A thinking person’s sci-fi, recalling Contact and Interstellar and perhaps even elements of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey, Villeneuve follows his protagonist – linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – from the opening frames of the film, to its mind-bending and satisfying conclusion. And this is done for a purpose, as he both wants to tell the story through his main character, but also allow the audience to follow the journey with her, feeling panic as she first enters the strange pod that hovers over the Montana landscape, feeling elation as she begins to understand the meaning of a possibly aggressive alien culture.

While covering some big ideas, Villeneuve often drops simple clues in his narrative. So simple in fact, that as a viewer you may not even realise that they are the crux of the story itself.

Here are four reasons why Arrival might be the most important science fiction film you see this year.

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The film is based on a short story

The film is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chian. It was the winner of the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella as well as the 1999 Sturgeon award.

The major themes explored by this tale are determinism, language, and The Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.

The fact that the short story is written about someone’s life should be the viewer’s first clue that the film is not what it seems.

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A relatively simple story hiding complex concepts

One of the concepts in the film that is casually referenced, but turns out to be a major theme in the film is the linguistic theory known as The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

The hypothesis evolved from work by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and is more commonly known as the “Theory of Linguistic Relativity”. It is significant in communication theory and poses the idea that language determines how we think, and suggests that full immersion in a foreign language might be a way to change the workings of the mind at the most basic level. It is a concept-paradigm in linguistics and cognitive science that holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or world view.

In the film, and indeed the short story it was based on, Louise Banks becomes so immersed in the language, that it begins to start to shape her way of thinking and even dreaming. Her constant contact with the aliens and their “heptapods” in the film — there are 12 of them hovering over different parts of the world — begins to shape her life and experience in ways she can’t fathom.

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The alien language hides important clues

Another important plot point is the alien language itself, which looks like a cross between a coffee stain and a Rorschach test – it’s concentric circles at first become a code that Louise and offsider and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) must crack – and then becomes a clue to the way the film and story are actually constructed.

The alien heptapods have two distinct forms of language. Heptapod A is their spoken language, which is described as having a free word order and many levels of centre-embedded clauses. Understanding Heptapod B, the written language of the aliens, is central to the plot. Unlike its spoken counterpart, Heptapod B has such complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence.

When writing in Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. The phenomenon of Heptapod B is explained by the aliens’ understanding of mathematics and Fermat’s principle of least time.

In optics, Fermat’s principle or the principle of least time, named after French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, is the principle that the path taken between two points by a ray of light is the path that can be traversed in the least time.

Ultimately Fermat’s principle is about the very nature of time itself and that it is something that has neither beginning nor end. This informs the narrative structure of the film.

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Why is it so accessible if it has so many scientific principles?

Perhaps it’s biggest success is that it matches these high concepts and themes with emotional intelligence and heart, bringing us a heart wrenching ending that so few of these types of films are able to pull off. In the process it opens the viewer up to the vulnerability and sacrifice offered by Adams character, which ultimately transcends this piece of genre film making in a way that few other films have.

The beauty of the film is it makes the viewer think and in the process discover how it has carefully and subtlety walked you through some high level concepts without even realising it. The slow build to the grand reveal is the most impressive aspect of Arrival, because most films that ask the big questions often can’t deliver a satisfying answer.

We so often look at science and art as opposing forces, left and right brained activities, but this is precisely why a film like this should make us think differently. Creativity and maths and physics are all gifts from our Maker, and films like this that marry these disciplines in perfect concert don’t come along all that often. Using an art form like filmmaking, which itself comes from advances in technology, we get to explore concepts from some of the pre-eminent thinkers.

Arrival brings us there, and though the conclusions are earthbound and have so much to do with the nature of humanity and our relationships to each other and inevitably to God, it helps us understand that we are deeply connected in ways we can’t often fathom.

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.