“In war there are no winners, just widows.”
Arrival is a film adaptation of the short story The Story of Your Life from the Japanese sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, which was first published in 1998. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, and Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber.
Arrival is Memento meets Interstellar. The style of the film reminded that of Christopher Nolan. There are many similarities with Contact as well, especially in the way information is visualized. For instance, Contact’s aliens show data in three-dimensional arrays, whereas Arrival’s aliens use isolated symbols that convey full concepts. The main idea of the movie is that time is not linear and outlines how knowledge and language are the most powerful weapons an evolved species can have.
At the beginning of the movie, 12 alien spaceships, populated by a race referred to as the heptapods, land in seemingly random locations around the globe. We come to the realization that this decision is not random but a deliberate attempt to make nations work together. The heptapods’ kindness is not unconditional as they do expect a delayed payback. Even at the verge of dreaded circumstances, mankind still puts individual and nationalistic interests over the future of the planet. A Deus-ex-machina event towards the end of the film prevents a catastrophic war.
Arrival surpasses other alien invasion movies such as Independence Day and Skyline. It still shows, however, how the human race does not tolerate what is new: humanity has the inclination of hating what is not the norm. This movie is revolutionary in the sci-fi arena, not because is not action-packed, but due to the fact that the main characters are peripheral to the plot.
Arrival is a wake-up call. It warns us about acting out of fear and making rushed decisions. It teaches us that knowledge is not the piece but the puzzle. In traditional time travel movies, characters go back to the past in order to change the future. Arrival does not follow the same paradigm: the main character goes into the future in order to collect the data that she would then use in the past. Hence, in some instances, such approach shatters the time travel paradox (if you go to the past and assassinate your great-grandfather then you would have never been born, but if you were never born, then who killed your great-grandfather).
Amy Adams was superb but you barely notice —that is how immersive the story was. Everything fits so nicely that you don’t really pay attention to the soundtrack, or to the acting, or to the scenery. You don’t really care that this movie was not a low-budget one (and you wonder why it wasn’t).
The ending was not completely unexpected yet it was still enjoyable. This movie wasn’t really an ode to peace, but a call for working as a single race, for rejecting personal interests for the sake of more worldly pursuits. We are all human, but we don’t all share the same language. The alien language comes down as a more sophisticated Esperanto and explains how language does influence your way of thinking. Therefore, understanding the alien language allows the main character to think in the same way the aliens do: in a non-linear fashion in where the end does not necessarily comes after the beginning, which matches the film’s structure.
Philosophically, Arrival treats destiny as being predetermined, and even though Louise could possibly change her future, she doesn’t. In opposed to Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée, fate is knowable, but the main character is still bound by her own self-determinations, drawing an analogy to Sam Harris’s view of free will as an illusion. Louise is a XXI century Cassandra with the difference that she keeps the status-quo by choice.
Arrival is about accepting your fate and still enjoying it, even when it’s painful. It’s about not denying yourself but about embracing your fellow humans and working towards a more cooperative world. The film poses an important question that doesn’t get answered: what is more important, language or science? In my opinion, they are not necessarily contrasting forces as they converge into knowledge: and this was the movie’s intent.
Some of the characters, especially supporting roles, were not fully developed. A deeper background story would have helped viewers understand their actions more clearly.
When I watched Skyline a few years ago, I thought that the alien invasion movie genre was dead. It didn’t take three days, but Arrival -not Independence Day– might very well have resurrected it.