As gigantic, alien stones hewn in half hover over the world, a linguist steps into the limelight. This is the main storyline of Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival—a beautifully shot science fiction masterclass. The easily-identifiable first contact tropes are here: greetings, suspicion, heavy military presence, and why-are-they-here? And yet Arrival avoids the banality of many alien adventures, opting instead for an emotive, thoughtful experience that would probably drive Michael Bay insane. Aliens are in this movie, without a doubt, but what they bring to the table cannot be shot at, flamethrown, or disassembled.
Arrival is adapted from Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life. If you have never heard of Chiang, he’s perhaps the greatest science fiction writer you’ve never heard of, and maybe even the greatest writer you’ve never heard of. He’s not prolific by any means, with only fifteen short stories or novellas published since 1990. No novels, no essays, no real collections, even. But nearly everything he’s written has been awarded with the top prizes in science fiction: Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sidewise. The different worlds that Chiang’s fiction inhabits are stark and strikingly real, and the science that dictates those worlds is all consuming. For example, in his first story, “Tower of Babylon,” the skewed cosmology assumed by the ancients becomes reality, and brick-layers climb the tower into a strange new world.
In a way, Arrival occupies a new world, too. Because while the film is interested in its aliens from outer space, it also asks us questions about aliens in the biblical sense. Strangers. Outsiders. The ones from outside our gates. Obviously, the aliens themselves are strangers, but they’re also an allegory, and one that the filmmakers aren’t ashamed to make. That’s really what makes Arrival so potent. It takes its situatedness seriously, without being heavy-handed, and it does not shirk that responsibility. Any more detail here might spoil the film, but it’s enough to ask this: what do we assume about the things we don’t know?
In the end, this is still a movie about language and its power to shape the reality we indwell. So the new world that Arrival explores stays tethered to this one, but it is no more revelatory. What blew my mind maybe more than anything as Arrival drew to a close wasn’t its keen adaptation of Chiang’s story or its fantastic depiction of the visitors from space. What blew my mind was that the world of Arrival is brand new, but it’s my own.