Arrival: On Intuition, Language, and A Great Film’s Greatest Failure (Villeneuve, 2016)

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In spite of dropping the inimitable Roger Deakins (Prisoners–a masterpiece–, Sicario), Canada’s leading Studio director, Denis Villeneuve, has crafted a film of bracing visual detail and innovation, using primarily push ins, pull outs, and overexposure in producing haunting images of the supernatural. In regards to its cinematography, Arrival is 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Under The Skin.

It’s cinematographic feats already lend much to be admired, but what is much more admirable is Villeneuve’s respect for audience intelligence. Rather than pander to audiences, such as science fiction epics Interstellar and The Martian before it, Arrival challenges scientific theories openly and intellectually. What might be called its ‘twist’ is anything but; it is a reveal which simultaneously gives the audience narrative information while commenting on the predisposition of viewers in being governed by hollywood formula. Villeneuve doesn’t aim to mislead audiences; audiences mislead themselves by believing in cinematic conventions.

This idea parallels the key theme of the film in that it portrays humans as if living within a box. Because a mother-daughter scene is inter-cut with affecting shots of the mother’s face, we believe she must be remembering the past. This is a common convention in cinema which we take for granted. There are many narrative conventions purported by the studio system which have indoctrinated our way of following a movie. The reveal is all the more shocking in that it challenged the conventions we have become accustomed to. It shows us that something can exist outside of the box.

In the film’s plot, what is outside this box is a life form which exists outside of time and who communicates through immediate thought. They share images with one another in order to communicate in a form akin to the act of thinking. Arrival suggests that humans could not only be capable of this, but that this ability is already within us, waiting to be tapped into.

Language leads a person astray from true connection with the world and spirit. Language takes time, but a thought is immediate and apparent. Ancient Indian Vedanta claims that the only true knowledge is that of sensory experience. This is because sensory experience is immediate and felt. It is intuitive; as with all true thought, it is immediate and apparent. A statement, however, originates as an intuition but does not reveal the intuition itself. A statement is a thought that is converted into language in order to be conveyed. The initial thought is thus manipulated into a form which exists within time. While the thought occurred immediately, its form as language exists within the dimension of time, a dimension which perhaps does not exist in the way we have become accustomed to believing. We believe in the passing of time because we spend more time thinking in language than thinking via intuition… this is the greatest flaw of humankind, and an illusion which we steadfastly believe in spite of the suffering it begets us. Buddhism and Indian philosophy teach us to dispense with the veil of maya (illusion of time) and see things as they truly are: eternal. The aliens in Arrival are Buddhas.

In ordinary human life we have several means of recognizing the experience of eternity. Music, for example, communicates through form alone, and is thus immediate. We cannot convert the sound of A minor from a guitar into language, the sound must be heard, and once heard it immediately generates the same thought in its beholder as it once originated from its player. From a different player or a different guitar it takes on a different form; so even its title as A-minor has tenuous bearing. Music, like all true art, is immediate communication and exists outside of time. Form, such as sound, movement, shape, is immediate, and aesthetics is the appreciation of form as art. Our interaction with art allows perhaps the fleeting experience of eternity, but first it must conjure a shift in one’s thinking… to move from thinking by language to thinking by intuition.

Where Arrival falters, however, is the narrow scope to which it applies this understanding. We are not told what the humans must learn in order to help the heptapods 3000 years later, just that they must learn it. Instead, we see the admirably humanist tale of a woman who raises a daughter knowing she will one day be killed by an incurable disease.

I don’t want to sound insensitive or suggest that a single life has little significance, but a daughter’s death seems relatively banal considering this woman has been given such an extraordinary gift of being able to emancipate from the shackles of time. It seems that Villeneuve’s focus on the meaning of this gift is squandered on family drama in the attempt to capture our hearts with a moving tale. But this woman has a gift which will proffer change for all human life, which can allow human activity on Earth to ascend to an enlightened stage. That Villeneuve glosses over this revelation which he so brilliantly conveys is by far his film’s greatest failure.

84/100 – Great.

4 Stars


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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1 Response to Arrival: On Intuition, Language, and A Great Film’s Greatest Failure (Villeneuve, 2016)

  1. Rachel says:

    Arrival is such a remarkable film. I never really thought about how it went against Hollywood conventions, but I guess that’s exactly why I admire it so much compared to other mainstream films.

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