The 2016 science fiction film Arrival posits the most obvious questions humanity would face when confronted by a first contact scenario. Can the aliens understand what we are saying? Is it even possible for us to understand them? Only after finding these answers could we ever know why they are here.
(MAJOR ARRIVAL SPOILERS AHEAD)
Arrival is a spectacular achievement in exploring the theme of language and communication with a visiting alien species. The challenges that lay ahead for Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) are foreshadowed when she has Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) ask another linguist candidate to translate the Sanskrit word for war. Words and concepts are relative to culture, and this becomes apparent quickly as the aliens are in contact with many governments around the world where each tribe of humanity speaks a different tongue.
The film is a joy to watch as a story and on a visual level, with an engaging soundtrack and a solid cast. It’s the solution to the breakdown of communications between the USA, China, and other countries as they misconstrue the aliens’ intentions that is distracting.
The origin of a Deus Ex Machina (literally God from the Machine) comes from ancient Greek theater. It could be a divine interaction coming out of the blue to save the hero or a god literally lowered to the stage to affect a resolution. The plot device occurs often enough in modern times that the term is well known. Sometimes a Deus Ex Machina is effective, and other times it’s considered a cop-out for the writer.
One example of a Deus Ex Machina from science fiction is the resolution to War of the Worlds, both in H.G. Wells’ novel and the movie adaptations. Here the Martians have humanity on the ropes and are poised to win. Only the god-like intervention of earth microbes stops them. Whether we as an audience find this palatable is a matter of taste. In ancient Greek plays, seeing a god intervening in mortal affairs showed a level of divine benevolence and interest in humanity and could inspire a sense of wonder. More humanistic storytelling leaves audiences wanting the protagonist to settle their own affairs. But the Deus Ex Machina still shows up from time to time.
In the movie Arrival, we have Dr. Banks gain the ability to see forward and back in time as a side-effect of learning the alien language. Looking forward, she finds the very solution to the problem of getting China to back down from the brink of attacking the extraterrestrials. She finds the place in time where the Chinese commander is thanking her for her phone call after the peaceful resolution of the alien situation. He then tells her what she said, thus giving her the needed information in the present to getting him not to launch the attack. This looping of an event leaves us with the feeling that the initial phone call to him could never have happened without his aid, becoming both a paradox and an essential Deus Ex Machina for the plot to find its resolution. She’s handed the answer to her problem on a silver platter.
This reminded me of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where both Bill and Ted repeatedly remind themselves of things they need to do in the future with their phone booth time machine to help resolve their chain of crises. The plot device here works, as it is as ridiculous as the rest of the film. In Arrival, it reveals the film’s weakest point.
Arrival still stands out as one of the year’s best. Even the sections with Dr. Banks seeing her own future are very engaging, including scenes of her child’s life cut short by disease, her relationship with her husband, and the publishing of her book. It’s unfortunate that the Deus Ex Machina robs the main character of the opportunity to resolve the plot’s situation herself rather than being handed the solution as if it were a gift from on high.