seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY
One of the biggest complaints about movies or TV shows with outer space aliens is the artistic license granted to make extraterrestrials communicate with humans. As far back as the silent classic A Trip to the Moon, it was always taken for granted. Slowly, as our knowledge about the cosmos grew, and sci-fi literature became more popular, adjustments had to be made. In the 50s, aliens in movies always said something like, "We have studied your language" to at least pay lip service to the idea they're different from us.
Close Encounters had the clever idea of using light and sound as a basis for communication. Within the movie's context, its purpose was to indicate we are an intelligent species, even if we were incapable at the time of traveling who-knows-how-many millions of light years in giant Christmas-tree ornaments. Contact used prime numbers the same way - mathematics being a language all its own.
Arrival might be the first movie I've seen where humans make a concerted effort to decipher a written alien language; where it's the film's raison d'etre. I have to admit, half the time I watched it, I kept expecting Amy Adams to discover "to serve man" is actually a cookbook, metaphorically speaking, but the inevitable twist ending was quite different.
As a kid, I liked cryptograms. You know, where there's an encoded message, where X stands for A, Q for B, J for C and so on, and you have to decipher the code before you read the message. Sometimes entirely different symbols stood in for our familiar English alphabet. Sometimes, I'd try to make my own code, but I never had anyone with which to share the code. I liked cryptography as a game, a puzzle, but I never aspired to pursue it as a career.
The alien languages invented for fictitious books, TV shows and movies all have one thing in common: they require human actors to speak these words. Arrival acknowledges up front humans are incapable of speaking the aliens' language, therefore the need for a written language is established.
It's a clever conceit. I can't help but wonder if it could've been enough to carry the whole film. The climax of Close Encounters, after all, relied on that first contact moment. Here, Adams and Jeremy Renner succeed in that task, but then the stakes are raised. I can't say more without revealing spoilers, though I will say while I got the twist ending, I didn't grok whether it was something within Adams' character, or if it was the result of the aliens' intervention. It was pretty weird.