In the movie Arrival from 2016, Earth is visited by an intelligent alien race, the ‘heptapods’, and the contact forever changes humanity’s sense of place in the cosmos. The movie offers an excellent examination of how we as a species might react to information that we are not alone.
Through the thoughtful eye of director Denis Villeneuve, and with the brilliantly structured screenplay by Eric Heisserer, Arrival instantly distances itself from most alien invasion movies. The pacing is methodical, the story captivating, and filmmaking beautiful. The movie is slow, intellectual, visually breathtaking and grandiose in theme.
One of the biggest themes in the film is the nature of communication and language and how we might best communicate with aliens if we ever had the occasion to. It explores how language impacts the way we think, specifically about time. Visual communication is also a key theme in the film. It turns out that communicating to someone who doesn’t know your language through text, spoken language and visuals all at the same time might actually be more effective than communicating in only one or two of these modes.
The design of the alien heptapods is different from most big-screen science fiction. Aliens are always tricky to depict realistically, mostly because as fictional characters, they tend to be metaphors for human beings. But the Heptapods in Arrival are crafted as a believable alien race first and a metaphor for humanity second.
Courtesy of artist Carlos Huante, the design of the Heptapod aliens do not share any glaringly obvious resemblances to any other aliens we’ve seen lately on film. There’s a gracefulness to how they move, communicate, and interact with their ship’s environment. They’re serene yet daunting and huge yet indistinct. They’re heptapods, meaning they have seven legs, and they look like a cross between a giant hand and a squid; their “fingers” resemble starfish that emit an inky, smoky substance, which is how they express their entirely visual language.
Crafting the complex alien language of the Heptapods is central to the story, and how this language is presented to us viewers. Despite having tentacles, they aren’t monsters as often seen in sci-fi of old. Instead, the heptapods are as elegant as they are imposing and the written Heptapod language is one of the most visually striking parts of the movie. The beautiful symbols were created for Arrival by Montreal-based artist Martine Bertrand.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story Of Your Life, Arrival stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Adams character Dr. Louise Banks is an international language expert who is called in to help translate the apparent language of a mysterious alien species who has peacefully landed 12 ships all over the globe. The heptapods show up on Earth with a mission to give humanity a technology of sorts: Is it a tool? A weapon? The movie is really more about it a grand idea – a concept of sorts – than anything else.