When it comes to sci-fi, here is a school of thought that there are two types of science fiction stories. One type is what is called “soft” sci-fi. Though it may feature things like robots or space travel, these stories use those futuristic elements as the coat for the kind of story that could work just as well within the realm of fantasy or adventure stories. The other type is what is known as “hard” sci-fi. These kinds of stories use scientific ideas to explore concepts or current issues. Now, neither approach is better than the other. It is simply two distinct ways of using scientific concepts for telling a story. In this instance, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has released a new film which falls into the secondary category. Drawing inspiration from author Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, Villeneuve has created a new film that offers the kind of fascinating ideas and rich exploration that “hard” sci-fi can offer. With his new film Arrival, he offers a captivating look at the subject of empathy through the lens of first contact with an alien race.
When twelve identical ships from outer space arrive on Earth, the world stops and takes notice. Among them is Louise Banks, a skilled linguist who is called in by the American government. They seek to form some method of communication, even as these visitors seem so alien in their speech patterns. Due to her incredible skill in deciphering languages in the past, Louise is brought in to find some way of breaking through and finding a method of communication. Working alongside a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly, the pair work to find a potential channel for communication with the aliens through the realm of writing. However, time grows ever shorter as they move step by step towards understanding. People around the world are afraid of a potential attack by these visitors. Governments have begun to arm themselves, preparing for an attack and edging ever closer to pulling the trigger. With the world at stake, Louise must find some way to communicate and find what these visitors want before the wrong move dooms us all.
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is a captivating entry into the realm of “hard” sci-fi. The direction is top notch and works well in making the subject of linguistics and communication a fascinating one to watch. The performances are well-done, especially Amy Adams’s turn as Louise Banks. She captures the stress in trying to achieve this lofty task, with all the weight of the world on her shoulders. When it comes to the film’s science fiction elements, though, I must give a particular note in regards to the aliens. The visitors here are creatures that feel truly alien. Their design is akin to an octopus with no eyes and seven tentacle that look akin to a spider’s legs. Their writing is presented in circles, with no beginning or end points in their structures. Even their speech is far from anything akin to our own. The result is a form of alien that seems truly alien. It is refreshing to see, considering how many aliens in fiction tend to be given some sort of humanoid qualities. Of course, it is more than just the science fiction qualities that make this film stand out. It is also in how it uses them.
Through the use of this first contact, the movie explores the power and importance of empathy. Throughout the film, much is shown of the world’s worry and panic about these visitors. While most of the population is panicking at the prospect of an alien invasion, the world’s governments are largely shown as approaching the matter with skepticism and concern. They see the potential for danger if these aliens do attack, or what might happen if another government were given weapons by these aliens. However, they are so focused on finding out what these visitors want that they approach the situation as a threat. Louise, however, is one of the few that actually seeks understanding. She takes the time and risk to actually work through the layers of separation and gain clarity in communication. She is able to break down the language of these aliens, and in the process better connect with them. As a result, she is the one who proves to be key to finding the intentions of these visitors while everyone else is busy preparing for an attack or danger from this “other”. Louise does not treat them as an “other”. She treats these aliens as another race, not something to fear but to treat and communicate with on the same level.
As his latest project, Denis Villeneuve has crafted a good slice of “hard” sci-fi with Arrival. Its story of first contact and the challenge in deciphering an alien language works as a stirring story about the importance of empathy.