Arrival is a film about a linguistics professor recruited by the military to figure out the reason why aliens have come to Earth. 12 spacecrafts float in 12 separate parts of the world and no one knows why. “What is your purpose on Earth?” That is what the world needs to know and that is what Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with deciphering.
The film opens with snippets of Louise’s life with her growing daughter: an infant, a child learning to read, an angry pre-teen. Then we are at her daughter’s death bed, with Louise melting into the sheets. Don’t leave me, she cries. Her grief is powerful. The film fades into black, indicating closure, and suggesting perhaps, the self-contained nature of the opening sequence in contrast to our new story and our new Louise. A different woman that has learned to live life alone.
In a matter of a few scenes, the aliens arrive. People rush out of school and work to their cars– where to go? In the face of such enormous uncertainty, the quotidien is shucked out the door. There is the sense that anything you do is now meaningless. Louise shows up to an empty classroom. Sits at her desk. The camera pans across her books, her cultural artifacts from different continents. The scale of differences on Earth seem now so small.
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) appears. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are flown off by helicopter to a military camp in Montana, near one of the spacecrafts. Language and science are paired together in the hopes that such foundational disciplines can unearth the meaning of their arrival.
As in the first half of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, alien invasion films contain narratives affected, if not constructed, by the suspense of an unresolved question. In Signs, Morgan (the son of Mel Gibson’s character, Graham) becomes the de facto expert in alien-tology and announces this dilemma at the turning point of the film: the aliens are either friendly explorers or hostile invaders. In this film, they are of course hostile, as is usually the case within the genre. Hostility creates the welcome binary of good (us) and evil (them), it incites action (war), and gestures towards an expected resolution. To insist on the potential goodness of the alien invader in the face of ambiguity would be contrary to instinct– naive, foolish. Suspicion of the foreigner is embedded in our psyches. It is essential that we remain on the defensive.
But Arrival rejects this. The aliens must be wiped clean of preconceptions and assumptions. This is why when Ian narrates his scientific findings of the spacecraft, it is significant that the pods emit no detectable waves or radiation. Nothing. The pod itself is made of something unknown, un-qualifiable. Save the visual and tactile certainty of the spacecraft, there is no trace of meaning. Or what humanity has come to deem as such.
Those who fear only fear because they know nothing, and in the face of the unknown it is crucial to assert dominance. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys. Why else would they remain so elusive, so mysterious, so cryptic? In any case, it is a natural defense mechanism to assert known frameworks of understanding onto the unknown:
Halpern: We have to consider the idea that our ‘visitors’ are prodding us to fight among ourselves until only one faction prevails.
Louise: There’s no evidence of that.
Halpern: Sure there is. Just grab a history book.
Agent Halpern goes on to list international conflicts that support his theory, but his appeal to “history” is laughable at best and evocative of toxic realist ideology at worst– far from any sort of prophetic wisdom. The matter at hand is much too complicated to evaluate on the basis of how humans make meaning of the world, that is, our culture, history, and language systems. In short, communication with the aliens requires stripping off our preconceptions of how consciousness is formed, or how we normally group together or order things to make sense of them:
Louise: Purpose requires an understanding of intent. Which means we have to find out if they make conscious choices or or if their motivation is so instinctive they don’t understand a “why” question, and biggest of all we need to have enough vocabulary with them so we understand their answer.
Ultimately, we discover that the Heptapod’s language is not linear, and that consequentially their consciousness is not structured by ordered time. They can see the future, an ability that can be acquired by learning their language, which Louise does (ultimately saving the world, to put the ending of the “international” conflict crudely). For me, the greatest dose of magic in Arrival is not the fantastic spacecraft full of hippie, fortune-telling space squids, but rather the fact that Louise learns their language. In doing so, I find that she symbolically breaks down her own human nature, that is– the tendency to think of things linearly. But perhaps it is not beneficial to think of human nature as our species-wide immutable tendencies. Perhaps it is just something we struggle with to change. In which case, “learning” the Heptapod language is indeed, an invaluable gift. The gift of being able to see in a way that we are not accustomed to, in a way that requires our brain and our consciousness to evaluate and feel things “in other terms.” I think of the opening voiceover monologue:
Louise: Memory is a strange thing. We are so bound by time, by its order. I used to think this was the beginning of your story. I remember moments in the middle. And this was the end. But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.
The emotional climax of the film is three-pronged: in realizing that she can see the future, Louise sees the way in which she prevents World War III as a way of informing her actions in real time; she also realizes that she and Ian will have a daughter, who will eventually die at a young age; the viewer becomes aware that the experience of watching this film is not linear, and that the opening scene did not come before, but after the events that constitute the meat of the film.
One opinion I’ve heard is that Louise is foolish, selfish even, for making a baby when she is fully aware of what will happen, all the suffering and the pain. But I find there is something heroic in choosing love over its absence, knowing fully that it is finite. In absorbing the Heptapod’s language, time flatlines. Louise is relieved from evaluating her life in terms of cause and effect, beginning and ending. What about the days in between? The moments of joy we witness all throughout the film, the happiest moments of Louise’s life: falling in love, making a baby, raising a daughter. Are they not worth living because they came in the wrong order?
What makes Arrival so impressive to me is how it manages to reinvigorate the “alien invasion” narrative to express a political, personal, and spiritual emergency, one that is both philosophically dense and emotionally authentic. Indeed, Arrival succeeds where Interstellar (2014) failed, because its intermingling of personal storyline (the relationship between Louise, Ian, and Hannah) and the “historic” gravity (of such things as space exploration or extraterrestrial contact) does not alienate the viewer. By this I mean that the viewer’s sympathies to Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) emotional struggle, the suffering he endures as a martyr, his decision to abandon his children, are abstracted by the epic context. We might know what it feels like to make a painful decision for the greater good, just usually not for the greater good of humanity.
The personal struggle in Arrival, on the other hand, retains its autonomy, its emotional relatability, its “small-scale” individual problem, and uses its epic context not to detract, but to elucidate and make visible the textures of our greatest hopes and fears, thereby elevating the personal to a position of greater importance. There is nothing unrelatable about finding love and losing it, nothing completely foreign about being left by your lover and dealing with a sick loved one. The specific ways that these situations feel might seem inexpressible to other minds and bodies, but to you it is so enormous, as enormous as an event in history.
By intentionally confusing the flash forwards with flashbacks, Arrival challenges us to re-think our ways of making meaning, out of Louise’s life and our own. So often do we live out our days hoping that each step and each minute is a forward march towards our greatest desires, our most sacred goals. We are so fixated on beginnings and endings– neurotically so– as if our lives were nothing more than our final output, regardless of the work involved.
Arrival was my favorite film of 2016. I am amazed that a science fiction film could make me think about my own life, which is so distant and unspectacular in comparison. I reconsidered some really meaningful episodes, tainted by their tragic conclusions, in terms of certain days, certain stretches of time that filled me with so much life, that taught me so many things about myself and the world. I’ve often thought, bitterly, that I would do certain things over again if I had the chance. If I only knew. And yet Arrival encourages one to relinquish this sort of hatred. Endings are either good or bad. Arrival privileges the sort of radically life-affirming mentality that embraces the in-between. Something we find very hard to do.