Arrival ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


1. It takes a certain creativity, or at least an ability to attune oneself to the proverbial "happy accident," for a group of film artists to invent a language based on the rings that beverages leave on coasters.

2. Jen was impressed, as was I, by the degree to which Villeneuve, Adams, and company flipped a very tired sci-fi script. By making Louise Banks (Amy Adams) the central character, Arrival allows us to observe epochal intergalactic events from a woman's point of view -- a rare thing in itself. But without the intermediary of weapons (and this is one of Arrival's crucial points), we really observe the impact of first contact, and the entire experience, upon Louise's body. First it's simply hyperventillation and feeling faint, but once the flashes of non-present begin, we witness how Louise takes them like body blows.

3. This problem Arrival introduces, of how the hectopods' circular, unified orthography forms a language outside of time, one that has the capacity to alter temporal consciousness, is a fascinating and troubling one. The script has Louise quickly mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has been largely discredited. But I suspect this is simply a throwaway, or better still, something for viewers to hold onto if the film's metaphorics become too abstract to follow. This may not have been necessary, though, since Louise's exchange with Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) serves the same purpose much more elegantly. "If all you have are hammers," Louise begins, and Weber finishes the thought: "everything looks like a nail."

4. It might be better to consider the heptopod language as a form of écriture feminine. Granted, we do not know the sex or gender of Abbott and Costello, or even if they possess such biological or cultural distinctions. But following Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, feminine writing is not only more in contact with the unconscious. It is more tactile, more connected to the body. What's more, it can be characterized by full presence rather than by loss. This is where things get interesting with respect o Arrival.

5. In its most basic sense, language is a tool for negotiating absence. If two people need to communicate about something that isn't there (for example, a kangaroo), they need a way to allude to that absent thing. (If everything were present, we could simply point.) The play of absence and presence within language has been likened to Freudian structures such as the "fort / da" game or the Oedipal complex, by Lacan. Language is linear, like our experience of time is linear, because it is in part about this play of absence and presence, the positing of a thing and its removal in favor of another thing. Ideas in language are linked, and linkable, because there is an absence or gap across which they can be linked. And understanding even the shortest sentence -- "Mom, I'm hungry." -- requires the listener to employ memory across the time of those gaps.

6. But what if language provided all its contents all at one time? How would we master a fully present language? Well, as per the French feminists, you could not "master" it, per se. You could merely range over it and experience it as a kind of proximate contact. But the primary point is this: the heptopods' writing, with its circular simultaneity of multiple related concepts, is indicative of a radically different relationship to time. Linear language tells us that getting to the future entails a sacrifice of the past, and that the "present" is little more than a theoretical chimera. By contrast, the heptopod writing reflects the full presence of multiple concepts, composed as a perfect circle, no aspect of the thought bearing primacy over the others. Irigaray made numerous claims about what a feminine language might look like, and this was once of them. Intuitive rather than argumentative, it does not focus on propulsion into the future for the purposes of situational mastery. (Cf. "argument" vs. "desire for more cows.")

7. The interpretive leap that Arrival makes from these ideas -- that nonlinear ideation could avail one of nonlinear time -- is a bold and shaky one, but this is a creative work and not a scientific treatise. If it appears that the only explanation offered for Louise's new capabilities is Sapir / Whorf, then we can dismiss any serious inquiry here. But this is where I think Villeneuve subtly introduced another layer of ideas. Could Arrival partly be an allegory for cinema itself? The researchers enter the pod through a dark corridor, situated themselves before a white screen, and submit themselves to vague but enthralling images on that screen.

8. Eventually, one of them concludes that this "cinema" is a language, but not in the way we've come to expect language to function. It is a fully-present "language" based on the visual relationship of physical forms. And once Louise submits herself to its pull -- removes her protective gear and "enters" the diegetic world -- she discovers a new form of communication, one where the coterminousness of past and future is not only possible but desirable. In short, the hectopods are teaching Louise how to see. Abbott and Costello could just as well have been called Eisenstein and Bazin.

9. Arrival is even better than Sicario, which I quite liked. With his body-centric, feminist revisions of male-oriented genres, Villeneuve is now 2-for-2, although to my mind he still hasn't topped Polytechnique. In any case, regarding this foolhardy Blade Runner sequel, I'm prepared to give my man the benefit of the doubt.

10. One more thing: anyone else get an Ellsworth Kelly vibe from those pods?