Film & Television

In ‘Arrival’ Humanity is Found in Translation

I was sitting in a darkened auditorium of my local multiplex the other day, trying to resist the tub of popcorn I’d placed just out of reach in the empty seat next to mine, when the previews began. The last one was for Passengers, an upcoming science fiction thriller starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. They’re among 5,000 people aboard a space ship headed for some distant world, but a malfunction wakes the two of them from suspended animation 90 years ahead of time. They flirt together and explore space together and strap on some heavy artillery to save the day together. Then, for some reason that wasn’t apparent in the trailer, Lawrence is suddenly in peril, in her underwear. We can safely assume that Pratt remains fully clothed.

Why is it that so many sci-fi heroines end up in their underwear? I’m not talking about 1968’s Barbarella, which was pretty much soft porn, or any number of Captain Kirk’s scantily clad alien loves. I’m referring to bona fide action heroines, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Maybe it has something to do with the genre’s core audience: teen boys. Regardless, I found myself wondering whether the sci-fi movie I was about to see would sexualize its female protagonist as well.

I’m happy to report it doesn’t.

Arrival, the intoxicating new movie by director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella “The Story of Your Life.” It’s a complex blend of extraterrestrial fantasy, quantum physics and time theory. It stars the wonderful actress Amy Adams.

And, she’s fully clothed.

Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguistics professor, who’s mourning the death of her young daughter. When a dozen enormous vessels arrive and hover above various sites on Earth, the U.S. military asks for Louise’s help. She has “top security clearance,” we learn, having previously aided the government in locating terrorist insurgents. Now, her help is needed again. Why are the aliens here? What is their purpose?

Louise’s assignment speaks at once to a deeper, more thoughtful approach to the idea of extraterrestrials. Communication would, of course, be critical if otherworldly visitors ever did show up. Could we learn their language? Teach them ours? (After all, assuming they would speak English of the Hollywood “We come in peace,” “Take me to your leader” variety is incredibly terra-centric of us.) Louise is surrounded by military, some of whom are of the opinion that blowing up the spacecraft is a better plan than whiteboarding vocabulary words. But, she has two allies, scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker).

Learning a new, and non-human, language is time-consuming, and there’s a clock ticking. The imminent threat is not from the aliens themselves. The Earth’s other super powers are having their own difficulties communicating with their own aliens. China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) in particular has determined that the visitors are hostile and must be destroyed. And, if that triggers World War III, so be it.

If you’re having trouble following any of this, let me warn you that there’s also a parallel narrative that runs through Arrival. Flashbacks of Louise’s daughter’s short life somehow hold the key to reaching the aliens and learning what they’ve come to offer. This is less confusing than it sounds and adds great texture and heart to the movie, as well as humanity.  And, that’s a good thing, because the aliens themselves aren’t adding much in that department.

The aliens are not humanoids; in fact, they’re called “heptapods” and resemble the prehistoric love children of elephants and octopi. They are huge and loud, and their technology appears to be more advanced than ours. In a way, you can understand why heavily armed military men would see them as giant targets. Louise and Ian, however, see them as giant scientific puzzles to solve. As they learn their “language” (the heptapods communicate by shooting ink into the air that settles into circular Rorschach-like figures), they also learn a new way of thinking.

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