"So, how many languages do you speak?" As a former student of linguistics, I have been asked this question a lot. The answer is: three fluently (English, French and Italian), one well (Spanish) and two a little (German and Japanese) but, as I would often explain, linguistics isn't about learning as many languages as possible, but the scientific study of language — how it evolved, how it is structured and how it varies. The cliché of the linguist as the polyglot is the biggest misstep of Denis Villeneuve's new film Arrival, but something likely only to irritate linguists, who are, in any case, too busy enjoying their discipline's moment in the spotlight to care too much; besides, there are a few good linguistics in-jokes too.
As usual, I've tried to avoid any major spoilers in this review, but this is one of those films that is best experienced by going in knowing as little as possible about it, so please consider coming back after you've watched the film if you would like to go into it with a blank slate. Suffice to say, though, that it was beautiful and moving, thoughtful and complex, and one of my favourite films of the year. The Contact connection is an obvious one but it reminded me more of Christopher Nolan's excellent Interstellar in its themes and tone.
The film's titular arrival is that of twelve huge ovoid spacecraft in random locations across the globe, prompting world leaders to try to work out who or what is inside them and what they want. Some nations react with suspicion, while others send in the scientists, including theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The US military also sends in the country's top linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) — or, at least, the top linguist who already has the necessary security clearance. Handily, she is also fluent in a wide array of languages.
Banks's task is to find out why the alien visitors are here. Unsurprisingly, she is apprehensive when she first enters the alien craft that has landed in Montana and the reveal of the alien beings — shadowy seven-legged cephalopods — is teasingly slow. After a brief attempt to crack the heptapods' 'spoken' language, Banks demonstrates writing, eventually encouraging the pair — whom Donnelly dubs Abbott and Costello — to reveal their own form of visual communication: complex, ephemeral ink patterns that resemble coffee rings. With Louise's knowledge of language and some hefty computational processing power, the team make very gradual progress in understanding what Abbott and Costello have to say.
At least, so they think; without any common points of reference, how could another being understand that if I point at myself and say 'Bex', I am referring to 'Bex the coffee blogger' rather than 'woman', 'human' or 'living creature', for example? There is a crucial difference, then, between the heptapods saying they have weapons and saying they have a gift. One of the film's central linguistic themes relates to linguistic relativity whereby the language you speak shapes how you perceive the world. Without saying too much about the language or communication system of the heptapods, the perception of time is a critical component of it, and this also becomes key to understanding the film.
While Banks endeavours to crack her toughest linguistic puzzle yet, she is also struggling with events in her personal life, which first surface in the film's opening sequence — an emotional and powerful montage that is accompanied by Max Richter's haunting and apt On the Nature of Daylight. And really, despite its alien catalysts, Arrival is a film about humanity, compassion and understanding. Adams is magnificent as Banks — empathetic, warm and convincing as the unlikely heroine, she manages to turn her character's inherent sadness into her biggest strength.
Villeneuve's film is cleverly structured and compelling to watch, particularly as the final pennies begin to drop. Like Interstellar, it is the kind of film that overwhelms you at the time and then stays with you as you gradually process what you have seen and experienced. Although quite different from Villeneuve's last film, Sicario, Arrival does have a lot in common with his 2011 movie Incendies, where the search for truth, identity and meaning also features prominently.