I could keep this review pretty simple by saying this is one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite some time and it also brought me to tears.
Not enough for you? Okay, I’ll keep going.
The premise of Arrival is that twelve alien ships have arrived across the planet’s surface. The ships are monolithic. They look like giant rocks. They defy every preconceived notion of “space ship” that we have previously employed. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics and written communication expert. She is recruited by the military to take point on trying to talk with the aliens. Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, and he’s a mathematician partnered up with Banks to try to make sense of what the visitors want from humanity.
This is a quiet, understated film with almost quaint special effects when compared to all the star wars and super heroics we’ve witnessed. Though technically science fiction, the movie deeply explores the ideas of time and space, communication, the modes by which we communicate and how that influences communication in and of itself, and ultimately the human condition (hence, the crying).
I appreciate this movie because it introduced fresh takes on old ideas. Yes, we’ve seen movies about aliens landing on our planet and humans trying to figure out what they want. But I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie quite this personal. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a movie with a linguist actually explaining important ideas about oral and written communication. At one point, Louise actually begins to diagram a sentence. On screen. For several minutes.
The film also defied expectations in regards to the aliens themselves. It recognized that life forms existing outside of our planetary environment would likely look, act, and sound nothing like us. To even assume an alien would have eyes, a nose, ears, or a mouth in the conventional sense is awfully presumptuous on our part. To believe that aliens will speak the way we do and write the way we do is probably childish.
Nuanced, touching, smart, though-provoking, and beautifully executed, I could easily see Arrival earning a “Best Picture” win. It’s that good, albeit unobtrusively so. I absolutely recommend this movie to anyone who loves a good story.
At this point, I’m going to discuss some issues concerning the movie that will unquestionably ruin it for you if you haven’t yet seen it. I implore you to watch it now and come back to finish this piece if so inclined. Do not forge ahead without having seen the movie, though, I implore you.
Arrival delved into some very serious aspects of the human condition. It demanded we investigate the philosophical aspects of love versus duty, happiness versus heartbreak, selfishness versus selflessness. In the end, I drew the conclusion that there is no real distinction. We endure all of those things all the time, just as the aliens existed perpetually at all times outside of our own space and time continuum.
The movie broke my heart in the beginning when it seemed that Louise previously lost her daughter to illness. Juxtaposing the line “Come back to me” when the child is born and then when the child dies reduced me to tears. But when we learn that Hannah is not of the past, but rather of the future, Louise’s plight becomes all the more heart-rending.
When Louise ultimately grasps the visitors’ language, she gains their ability to access consciousness throughout an entire existence. This gift from the aliens allows Louise the knowledge necessary to help the world avoid catastrophe, but it also informs Louise as to her exact future, and that her future daughter will die an awful death. She learns that Ian will be the father of that child, and that Hannah’s terminal illness will drive husband and wife apart. Yet, she chooses to love. She opts to hang on to the fleeting moments she knows she will have with both Ian and Hannah. She decides the time she has with Hannah will be all the more precious with the awareness she’s been granted.
For her to take on that pain, to accept a child’s death, to willingly endure such calamity … it drove me to tears. I can’t lie—I hid in the shower and wept like a baby. I can’t imagine ever having to make such a decision … Yet, Louise chose love.
However, today, as I kept thinking about the movie, I grew angry at Louise. There’s a moment in the film when Louise is explaining to Hannah why Ian is looking at his daughter differently (this is after they’ve separated). Louise explains that Ian is angry because she made a decision without his involvement. We’re to presume that when Louise accepted her future, when she reciprocated Ian’s love, she did not tell him that this would lead to a child that was destined to die far too young. I think withholding that sort of information would detract any marriage. So I became angry with Louise. First and foremost, I disliked her for being so selfish—for choosing to enjoy the brief time she has with Hannah rather than to never experience Hannah at all. Hannah never had a choice. (Nor do any of our children. They are all the victims and/or beneficiaries of circumstance.) For her to put Hannah through such torment … to thrust her child into a broken home and a terminal illness … it made me furious. Also, to make that choice on Ian’s behalf and to preclude him from having a voice in the matter … that upset me as well.
Can you tell I’m a father of two children whom I love more than anything in this world?
However, upon further reflection I realized Louise never had a choice at all. I say this for two reasons. The first reason is simpler than the second, and it is the fact that if she didn’t follow through with the prescribed future revealed to her then she would not have gained the knowledge that she used in the moment of the film’s story to circumvent disaster with the Chinese and the visitors. Each moment of the future exposed to her must occur in order for the present to survive. Without the present, there will be no future. She never truly had a choice. She chose her own suffering, Hannah’s suffering, and Ian’s suffering, rather than make the world suffer.
Yet, the second reason negates the first. The visitors say they have a weapon for us, which they actually intend to mean “gift.” They say they will give us this gift so that in 3,000 years we can help them in return. For the aliens, our perception of linear time has no value. They live outside the notion of our “beginning, middle, and end” time stream. Like their language, everything is happening, has happened, and will happen at the exact same moment. They see all, know all, and experience all in the same moment. Keeping that in mind, once Louise attained their unrestricted sense of perception, she lost all power of choice. Future Louise exists in tandem with present Louise, which makes the latter powerless to change the course of the former. I suppose some would call it a sort of “predestination.” When looked upon through that lens, I cannot be angry with Louise any more than I can be angry with my own future self. My only advantage is that I have no idea what glory or tragedy awaits, whereas Louise knows exactly what’s in store for her.
It’s been awhile since a film moved me as much as Arrival. I hope it means as much to you as well.