Time travel stories are often disappointing. No matter how often this subject is engaged, its inherent paradoxes invariably obstruct the plausibility of the story, even the suspended-disbelief kind.
The Arrival is not exactly a time travel story. But the aliens in the movie have a nonlinear time perception and as such they are able see the future. This idea of course does not evade all the usual paradoxes but it’s easier to ignore them because the emphasis in the film is not so much on the benefits and drawbacks of knowing the future, but rather on the cognitive premises of this ability. The aliens’ prescience is explained in linguistic terms — they perceive time as nonlinear because their language is nonlinear.
This fascinating spin on the time-travel theme is based on a scientific theory, the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity (the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view and cognition). In The Arrival this hypothesis is taken to its extreme, in fact all the way to the realms of fantasy — but I mean it in the most positive sense: fantasy as a thought experiment, both fun and stimulating.
In a sense the movie is a classic science fiction, though the science in question is cognitive rather than natural. It makes a point about the importance of language — as a tool that enables communication, as a filter through which we perceive reality, and as a weapon. And it has a linguist saving the world — which, any language enthusiast will agree, is just cool.
Unusual, thoughtful sci-fi.