The kangaroo did it
by Thom Yee
Most people don’t know this about me, but I didn’t grow up speaking English. That might not be a huge, shocking surprise given my Chinese last name and the… let’s say, inward-looking nature of my people, nor is it likely a huge stretch of the imagination to conclude that my first language might be Chinese. In my specific case, it was a dialect of Chinese that you probably wouldn’t even recognize if I specified which (and I’m not going to), and looking back and thinking about my parents, both second-generation Canadians more comfortable speaking English (if at all?), it seems like a strange choice to have tried to raise me in a Chinese-speaking environment. What I remember most about speaking Chinese in my first few years was a great deal of isolation from most of the people I met followed by learning English at age four, in the process completely forgetting Chinese, and then a great deal of isolation from the Chinese community of which I was allegedly a part, a feeling that continues to this day. I like to think sometimes that those early experiences with conflicting languages and incompatibilities of understanding gave me a unique perspective on grammar and the process with which I’ll put a sentence together, but really, I think it might have just made me hate everyone and the world around me.
Arrival is a movie that hinges on the idea that language shapes the way you see the world, and even if your own personal story of language and how you learned to communicate might be more straightforward than mine, it’s a hard idea to shake the more you think about it. There are the obvious differences in grammatical structure between languages, but there are also bigger, more foundational differences as well, some of which might have implications on how we approach the world around us. What’s that little accent on the top of that ‘é’ mean? How come it goes in a different direction sometimes? Why do your letters look different from mine? What do you mean your language doesn’t have an alphabet? Oh, and that ‘?’ at the end of my sentences? That means it’s a question. You do have questions in your language, right? Your people speak mostly through metaphor? Then this whole paragraph was a waste!
The very idea of establishing a base language with which to converse, communicate, and work together seems astronomically difficult and in a lot of the ways that really count, we still haven’t done it, and yet it’s probably the most important development of our society (well, that and indoor plumbing). Still, we persist and go on with whatever it is we’re doing in whatever way we’ve deemed best to do it alongside and often against the more than seven billion other people and nearly seven thousand other languages, most doing their things in very different ways and in completely different directions. So of course we all hate each other. But I don’t think that’s what Arrival is about.
What’s It About?
When 12 extraterrestrial spacecrafts appear suddenly in different locations all across the Earth, the world’s nations gather together their greatest scientists (and linguists!) to discover the nature of these mysterious vessels and establish contact with their inhabitants, among them Americans Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Though the early attempts to communicate with the aliens begin as a cooperative world effort, tensions soon rise between nations as they each draw different conclusions from what the aliens seem to be saying.
After Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014, and last year’s The Martian, I was beginning to worry that 2016 might mark the first year in recent memory that we wouldn’t have a great (or at least big) fall space movie, and after seeing Arrival, that worry still stands, because Arrival isn’t at all a space movie despite appearances to the contrary. For one thing, we never once leave Earth in Arrival. For another, of the four, Arrival is the only one with actual aliens in it. And lastly (or at least the last thing I’m going to list), Arrival is by far the most intimate of all of these movies, and that makes it feel much smaller than what you might be expecting of a movie about 12 space ships of undetermined origins landing on Earth from seemingly out of nowhere causing everybody to go nuts. And so it may fall to Passengers to fill in that void, but let’s be honest, that mostly just looks like a movie about impossibly pretty people flirting with each other. In space.
But enough about what Arrival ain’t, you probably want to know more about what it is, and from a film perspective, probably the most important thing it is is the latest movie by director Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian and Canadian film school graduate whose previous works include Enemy, Prisoners, and last year’s Sicario, all movies known to be great and all movies known to be ones you probably haven’t seen. Hell, I’ve only seen one of them, and I, like, watch movies for part of my living. Anyway, the point is Arrival looks like a good movie, is directed by an acclaimed director, and it’s not that Charlie Sheen movie from 1996.
Is It Any Good?
I’ve twice described some of my favourite movies of this year — Swiss Army Man and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — as movies you might not like, and I think Arrival also fits quite neatly into that category, though unlike those two, Arrival isn’t quite as stylized and it’s nowhere near as weird. No, the reason you might not like Arrival is because it’s not exciting. It’s not boring, it’s just not an alien movie that’s exciting. There aren’t really any action scenes, there’s only one explosion (and it’s pretty minor, though very interesting and actually illustrative of a point), in fact there’s not a huge sense of aggression in the movie at all. In the simplest terms, I would say that Arrival is the anti-Independence Day, and while I liked Independence Day (the first one!), I love Arrival.
Arrival is a small and personal movie about what might plausibly happen if aliens arrived on Earth and how humanity, in its many factions, tends to deal with things that could be problems, and when it comes to problems with planetary consequences, you can imagine some of us might not deal that well. We might not all speak the same language or believe the same things, but certainly fear is one of the few things we’re capable of perceiving that absolutely transcends most barriers (and not that stupid love thing that some other movie might have you believe).
I’m not personally someone who feels especially pessimistic about the movie industry, especially not in an era where superhero movies reign supreme (‘cause that’s my peanut butter and jam), but in many ways, Arrival feels like the closest we’ll ever come to a modern movie about our first contact with aliens that’s so focused on science and reality and leaves enough to the imagination that you can draw your own conclusions and find parts of your own story reflected at least somewhat within. And that’s a good thing. It explores the idea of how difficult it would be to even establish a common language between two peoples with almost nothing in common other than sentience, and, in so doing, illustrates why none of us can ever really have a shared experience. Co-workers might remember things differently despite both being there, brothers and sisters couldn’t be more different even though they were raised by the same parents, once-loving husbands and wives might have entirely different accounts of why they’re getting divorced, and almost every time we think we’re the ones who were right about whatever it is that happened. There are shades in our language, shades in our perspectives, and shades in our lives that might not seem like much from the outside but amount to drastically different consequences depending on how we perceive them and the paths we take as a result.
That isn’t to say it’s overly smart or ever really confusing or done in a way that’s over a lot of people’s heads, because it’s not, it’s actually pretty simple, but it all comes together in such a rewarding and thoughtful way that it almost seems to hit you over the head with how not stupid it is, and that’s a profoundly different experience from most of the major movies we see today. That’s why you might come out of it with the sense that it’s a deep and complicated movie when it’s mostly just measured, even-tempered, highly accomplished, and explicitly not stupid, allowing itself to be complex without losing accessibility. It might seem intelligent to point out how difficult it is to ask an alien what it’s doing here when its culture might not even have the concept of a question, it might seem astute to point out how easy it is to misinterpret things we’re told, but all of those thing are relatively self-evident given the proper examples, it’s just not that often that a movie trusts us to get there ourselves without over-explaining itself. In fact, if you break down some of the actual mechanics of what Amy Adams’ Louise and Jeremy Renner’s Ian are doing, you’ll see Arrival isn’t necessarily even a movie about linguistics, there may even be some flaws in the logic of their linguistic process, it just reminds you that you most likely have thought about these things before, and those are the types of thoughts — that we all have when we’re at our most open and inquisitive — that can bring us together despite not speaking the same language or destroy us when we’re not saying the same thing.
So Should I See It?
I’ve really only told you about some of the characteristics of and ideas in Arrival, I haven’t even gotten into what the movie’s about beyond the obvious or what it eventually becomes. It’s a movie with enough depth to keep you enthralled in a way that feels seamless as it transitions from one idea to the next, including what makes us horrible and why we would ever try to be better, never leaving you with the kind of dissonance between science and emotion that you might feel from lesser works. It’s dark and muted and introspective in the best possible ways, bordering on the hypnotic, and it’s actually surprising hard to write about without spilling the beans and telling you everything, and so I’ll leave you with this: If you hate what the modern movie landscape seems to have become — an endless parade of sequels and reboots and the shallowest of storytelling — you should see Arrival. And if you feel differently, you should also see Arrival. I hear it has aliens in it.
Thom’s Arrival final score