CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Dir: Steven Spielberg, 1977) is rightly held up at the pinnacle of alien contact films; you could make a case for it being Spielberg’s best, and all science fiction films about that first communication with visiting aliens owes it a debt of gratitude. Arrival (Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2016), a quieter, more thoughtful piece, combines the traditional alien encounter narrative with a story about the perspective-changing power of language. It’s a worthy successor, and maybe – just maybe – it’s even better.
Spielberg’s is a fundamentally positive film about the ability of humanity to come together and communicate with a single voice – as represented by the Americans and French working together to understand the aliens’ language – but also about the importance of an individual in spite of this, and the innocence of man compared to the cosmos. In Close Encounters, humans are small, yet significance, and ready to take part in a wider community. Communicating with the aliens is difficult, even when it is reduced to a form comprehendible by the humans – i.e. music. Overcome this barrier is a step towards understanding and tolerance; this message, pressed by Spielberg, is directed towards the two opposing Cold War power blocs of the time, whose unwillingness to communicate on a basic level made them as alien to each other as… aliens.
Arrival takes this a step further. In the film, humanity is pushed apart by their differing understanding of aliens’ language. Each nation visited by the strange, pebble-like space craft interprets their purpose in a different way, and this fear of the unknown causes them to jump to conclusions. This fear, this powerful sense of dread that is created by the aliens is something the film portrays most effectively. When we first encounter the heptapods, it is at the end of a dark, formless, noiseless tunnel; all we can hear is the sinister score and the heavy rhythmic breathing of Amy Adams. The chilling atmosphere builds until the heptapods emerge from the mist, and the scene begins to illuminate – even then, there is only a small window of light, framed by the darkness of our limited understanding. We learn from that scene, however, that same sense of fearful awe that stops humans, in their haste, from appreciating the message of heptapods: their language is so unlike our own that it requires – and ultimately creates – an entirely new way of comprehending the world.
The circle motif serves to remind us of the non-linear nature of time that underlines the plot.
This enhanced understanding is demonstrated in the circle motif, which appears throughout the film as a visual clue. The shape serves to remind us of both of the non-linear nature of time that underlines the plot, and the importance of understanding the ‘whole’ to decipher it. To understand the alien language, the circular characters must be taken as a whole, with each pattern or element contributing to a larger appreciation of its meaning. It is this more complete understanding of their language that allows Amy Adams’ character to appreciate the nuance of the aliens’ message, thereby allowing her ability to comprehend their motives and in turn how they perceive and understand their world. As a result, we too, have our perspectives changed, finally realising that Adams’ flashbacks are not flashbacks, but visions of the future. We see that to understand the story we must put each element of its non-linear plot into the proper context, so that we might understand the greater whole of the story, just as with the language of the alien heptapods.
The shapeless grey alien ships are used to emphasise just how alien these new arrivals are, but also to highlight the ambiguity of their purpose and their message. The humans, as they try to decipher the alien language and grasp its nuance and complexity, project their own understanding onto the blank slate of the space-pebbles, represented by the differing interpretations of their language. ‘Offer weapon’ is seen by the clichéd, villainous Chinese and Russians as constituting a threat, and by the Americans as being an offer of help. The phrase is left vague in order to highlight the inability of humans to change their perspective and therefore understand its meaning. just as the heptapods and their ship are left strange, grey and formless. While nothing about the aliens ever becomes clear, that they disappear into the ether at the close of the film reveals that their identity is ultimately irrelevant. They are a means to an end, to provide humanity with a new way of understanding the world, and therefore, each other.
This message of communication among humanity is presented more readily than Close Encounters. The linguistic angle is unique, and relates clearly to humans, a species still constrained by multiple languages and perspectives. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis upon which Arrival is based, suggests that a person’s entire way of thinking is predicated by the languages they are able to comprehend. Taken to its extreme by the film, Amy Adams is increasingly able to see time as a whole, in much the same way as we perceive space. On a human level, it illustrates the need to appreciate the cultures and perspectives of all humans by sharing and learning their cultures and languages. In the film, Chinese and Americans alike are united by knowledge of the aliens’ language, and hope for a brighter future is kindled. If humanity were able to study the broad message of Arrival, we could come to terms and appreciate our differences, and realise that the gulf between us is far, far smaller than our many tongues suggest.