On October 11th, the film Arrival made first contact with theatres. Its basic premise made up the majority of its marketing: Aliens have landed on earth. They are speaking to us. There’s just one problem: We have no idea what they’re saying.
Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), renown linguist and theoretical physicist respectively. They are conscripted by the United States Government to ask the aliens a single question: “What is your purpose on earth?”
Almost immediately, Banks puts this task far down the line by outlining how many different linguistic pieces such a sentence required. Her first goal becomes to open up some level of communication. This is established with a white board. She writes “HUMAN” on the board, and points to herself. The aliens respond with a projection of their own written word for human. At last, a back-and-forth can be found.
This quest is complicated by several factors: the intense paranoia of accompanying CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), the bureaucratic pressure of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), and complicated international happenings. The alien landing in the United States is only one of twelve, and a major necessity for the translation team is communication with their contemporaries from the other “hosting” countries. And not all are welcoming: the Chinese quickly begin preparing for war.
A constant element of the tension is communication. At one point, the aliens offer up a message that quite literally gets lost in translation. The humans take it to mean “give weapon,” jeopardizing the translation teams’ relation with the hair-trigger government. The message is taken even worse by Russia and China, who go radio silent and position their military around the alien ships. Later in the movie, Halpern and Weber shut down communication on their end, refusing to offer up their intel to other countries.
Throughout these events, Banks remains determined to communicate with the aliens, with the humans, with everyone. She embodies a determined optimism free of naivety, and a resolve to seek discussion. She defies orders, goes against and behind her superiors, and even directly risks her life in attempts to resolve conflict, rather than doing what she’s told and put her country first. Against a wave of my-country-first mentality, the movie seems to not only encourage communication between all the peoples of the world, but even with the peoples of other worlds.
In summary, Arrival is a wonderful story, rich with discovery and suspense, and a remarkable message in a time that very much needs it.