Written By: Daniel Kinsley
While Arrival (2016) is ostensibly an alien invasion story, it is also a deeply affecting examination of free will and personal choice. In the film’s opening moments, we learn that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is losing her daughter Hannah to a rare terminal illness. In a sequence reminiscent of the opening montage in Up (2009) we witness Louise give birth to her daughter, who soon grows into a toddler, followed by a teenager, before she is diagnosed and begins to deteriorate. “There are days that define your story,” Louise explains. “Like the day they arrived.” After a dozen alien crafts land across the globe, Louise, a renowned linguist, is recruited by the U.S. military along with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a theoretical physicist, as part of a team tasked with determining how to communicate with the extraterrestrials. Led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) Louise and Ian are transported to a military encampment in Montana near one of the crafts. Soon after, Louise and Ian are taken onboard the craft, where they make first contact with two aliens whom they call Heptapods (owing to their seven limbs). The pair soon begins their research into understanding the written alien language, made up of a complex series of circular logograms. *
Adapted by Eric Heisserer from the award winning novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film remains thematically faithful to its source material, though its scope is broadened considerably, since it plays out largely internally on the page. Despite being a (necessary) invention of the film, the military plot and the accompanying characters are largely what drives the engine of the film’s story forward. While it was a risk expanding such an intimate story into something so much bigger, it pays off brilliantly as Heisserer and director Denis Villeneueve are able to smuggle heady science-fiction ideas into an expertly paced plot about the dangers of a far more grounded threat: our fear of The Unknown. For Villeneueve in particular, the film is both perfectly in line with his sensibilities, and a bit of a departure. The French-Canadian (shout out to François!) has made his name on muscular, but cerebral films (earning an apt comparison to Christopher Nolan) like Prisoners (2013) and Blade Runner 2049 (2018). While Arrival tackles challenging intellectual ideas that are similar to the auteur’s other films, it is also a warmer and softer film, driven primarily by a deep emotional current. **
As Louise and Ian continue to work, the Heptapods (whom they name Abbott and Costello) eventually explain that they have come to Earth to “offer weapon”, a declaration which causes a rift led by China who translate the message as “use weapon,” prompting them to break off communications, a move which several other nations soon follow. Louise remains in favor of continuing to communicate, arguing that “weapon” could very well mean “tool.” Meanwhile, a small group of rogue soldiers respond to this potential threat by planting a bomb inside the alien craft. Unaware, Louise and Ian re-board the craft, and receive an enormously complex message from the Heptapods. Before the bomb explodes, Louise and Ian are ejected from the craft, saving their lives, but knocking them unconscious. By the time Louise wakes up, the U.S. military is preparing to evacuate, and the craft is no longer within reach. China has delivered an ultimatum to the Heptapods, commanding them to leave within 24 hours. Several nations, including Russia, and Pakistan follow suit, and worldwide communications between countries cease altogether.
In the midst of the evacuation, Ian has a breakthrough with the Heptapods final transmission, suggesting that the full message is split among the various nations. Louise believes that this means the Heptapods want humanity to work together to decipher their true mission, but her arguments fall on deaf ears. Disobeying the evacuation order, Louise heads to the craft alone, boarding a transport pod that is sent down. Aboard the craft, Louise learns that the “weapon” is in fact, a gift: it is the Heptapod language, which allows Louise (and anyone else who understands their language) to “open time.” In a flash, Louise (and the viewer) begin to understand: the visions of her daughter are not flashbacks at all, but rather Louise experiencing memories of a future that has not yet occurred. It is a choice that might have felt gimmicky in the wrong hands (think M. Night’s worst impulses) but here it is less a third act-twist than it is a slow-burning realization. Throughout the film, Villeneueve and editor Joe Walker expertly play with language, utilizing our own understanding of cinematic syntax against us; over one hundred years of stories told through moving pictures have conditioned us to assume we know what we are seeing. When the full scope of what has happened is realized, it is a breathless, devastating moment that instantly rewrites the context of the entire film. ***
While Villeneueve and his collaborators (particularly the photography by Bradford Young) deserve a heap of credit, the films best magic tricks (especially the emotional turns) would not work without the right performers. There are game performances from the likes of Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, as well as a strong supporting turn from Jeremy Renner (playing quieter and smaller than he has in recent years) but the film belongs almost wholly to Amy Adams. Adams is so talented, able to shift easily from bubbly and maudlin to confident and sexy and back again. Revealing the depth of the emotional arc of Louise is a delicate balancing act, but Adams manages it, along with keeping the science grounded, with aplomb. In a career full of tremendous performances, this is arguably her finest hour. The entirety of the events in the film are told through Louise’s eyes; while the implications are enormous, the intimacy of it all relies on Adams making it all come together, and she is stunning.
Armed with the Heptapods language, Louise is struck by a vision of a future event in which she meets General Shiang, and thus remembers how she was able to convince him to stand down, an act which very well may have saved the planet from nuclear destruction. Once China stands down, other nations follow suit, and resume sharing information; a choice which will eventually lead to a global understanding of the Heptapod language, which put simply, will change everything. While the geopolitics are not the central focus of the film, it remains a powerful, emboldening message of transparency, cooperation, and most of all, the necessity of communication for humanity to succeed. In an era rife with xenophobia, fear, and a pronounced lack of understanding, it is a theme that has come to feel significantly more poignant in the few years since its initial release (which took place just days after the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House).
The beauty of the film is that it is so layered, and viewers can be riveted by the personal, or the political, and still find an emotionally satisfying text. For this particular viewer, however, the political aspects of the story exist largely to enhance the personal; in the final scenes, as Louise’s visions of a future fill in the remaining blanks, she poses a question to Ian: “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you make changes?” Whether she could actually choose to alter her future is a question the film chooses not to engage, and one could argue it is ultimately beside the point. Whether she is exercising free will to affirm a series of events, or simply acting in a way that fulfills events which have already occurred, she embraces the journey, knowing full well the cost. In doing so, she makes a profound declaration about the power and grace of acceptance. Even without knowledge of the future, it is a dilemma which we face nearly every moment of our lives: knowing all things eventually end, is ephemeral happiness worth the pain and suffering that must inevitably follow? For Louise, and Arrival as a whole, the answer is a resounding yes.
* For an earthbound comparison, think the written Chinese word.
** Something Nolan, for all of his prodigious talents, still struggles with.
*** Most importantly, it holds up on repeat viewings. Francois is a big believer in spoilers not being a thing, and here, I have to largely agree.