Review: Arrival Sci-fi gets real

A new sci-fi movie is in town, and instead of the usual superhero-types grunting at the frontlines, Hollywood has given us a protagonist who is making the science of language sexy again: a linguist, and a female one at that.

Arrival is one of those rare sci-fi films that is on the verge of revolutionary because in its beauty, it is equal parts artistic and realistic. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story The Story of You, this futuristic fictional piece is brought alive by both director Denis Villeneue’s prescient vision and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s penchant for scientific realism; an adaptation that remains as faithful to Chiang’s story as possible.

“…props to Heisserer for exploring these radical concepts in a sci-fi movie and attempting to add a hint of legitimacy to the science of the movie.”

Gorgeous panoramas circling the makeshift Area-51 base camp around the alien skyscraper taller than the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai show us a whole new world. One where two integral assumptions are put forth: that life outside earth exists, and that “first contact” is initiated by this group of extraterrestrials. Dr. Louise Banks, an American linguistics professor played by Amy Adams, is the choice individual tasked to be the main human liaison with these foreign visitors, who not only look non-human, but also speak a language that is otherworldly.

Humans, being humans, want her to find out who these Heptapods – their seven-limb makeup attributing to their namesake – are, how they arrived, and of course, the smoking gun question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

What sets Arrival apart, besides featuring significantly less violence than other sci-fi type movies, is that through its close to two-hour run, it is continually engaging. And Villeneue manages to do this sans the excessive cinematic effects we are so used to experiencing in those typical sci-fi movies, from the Star Wars/Trek franchise to critically acclaimed pictures like Blade Runner or Interstellar. In fact, the director’s choice to minimise gaudy lights and dramatic musical scores intended to incite forced suspense and prompt excitement in the viewer only adds to the subtle but perceivable grandeur of this beautifully put together movie, with a raw and sober authenticity that allow the audience to alternate feelings, but to feel nonetheless.

It also helps that this idea of being authentic also includes real life lessons on language and linguistics. The scientific analysis of language is put in the foreground of this film, and it was thrilling to see some of the theories that I’ve learnt from my linguistics class in university show up in the final script – albeit a very watered down take on the subject, undoubtedly to cater to the layman. Some of the ideas are pretty out there too, such as their portrayal of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which theorises that language determines cognition: while many linguists do acknowledge that language has some influence on thought, the idea that learning an alien language can alter your whole worldview is a slight stretch. Still, props to Heisserer for exploring these radical concepts in a sci-fi movie and attempting to add a hint of legitimacy to the science of the movie.

Of course, we cannot discount Amy Adams’ part in contributing to the film’s overall feel. Set in her character’s point-of-view, we don’t see her sitting around reacting to a book like in her previous film Nocturnal Animals; this time, she possesses both agency and an acute awareness of the risk that her job entails. She not only plays the part of the genius scientist, she also plays the part of the ordinary, emotional human being terrified and confused at the situation unfolding before her, adding to the realism that the film aims to portray.

Executed perfectly by a certain kind of rawness, her soft yet inviting performance in Arrival is a testament that undeniably christens her as one of the few actors in Hollywood who has mastered the craft.

The advent of Arrival is a breath of fresh air from the big-budget sci-fi films we have seen popping up on the big screen, with a notable rise in the last few years. Hollywood embracing the idea of toying with the genre provides us with another platform that lets us speculate about the unknown future. However, few films have given us the je ne sais quoi that Arrival has that makes its events seem almost grippingly plausible. A new epoch of the genre has come, and we can only hope that more films of this nature will continue to impress and awe as Arrival did.

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