In the wake of the most contentious election season in modern history, it would have been hard to watch any film and not try to apply some kind of timely meaning to it.
There’s no way director Denis Villeneuve could have known how welcome a story like Arrival is right now, as I’m sure many are finding out this weekend. It’s exactly the right film at exactly the right time. Arrival is a science fiction story about first contact. More than that, though, it’s about two wholly alien groups searching for a way to communicate before they give in to their fears and destroy each other. If that isn’t the precise narrative coming out of this post-election malaise, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it is.
Twelve alien spacecraft have appeared in scattered locations across the globe. They are hundreds of feet tall and shaped like flying saucers standing on end. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics brought in by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to make contact with one of the alien ships and hopefully understand why they’re here. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise immerses herself in the aliens’ circular writings and soon becomes the first to fully grasp their purpose. Various nations begin disconnecting from the global community as the aliens’ intent becomes clear, and it’s up to Louise to reopen that dialogue.
Based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival plays like an updated telling of The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Let’s ignore the time they actually remade it.) In 1951, the aliens came to issue a warning about nuclear proliferation. If we continued down the path of destruction, they would finish the job for us. In 2016, the aliens’ purpose is a bit more nebulous. In one of Louise’s first successful communications with the aliens, they state their purpose in two horrifyingly vague words:
Are they telling us to offer them a weapon? Are they offering us a weapon? In their rudimentary understanding of English, do these words even mean what we think they mean? These questions send the military and intelligence communities into a full-blown panic. Louise insists they need more time to communicate before jumping to any conclusions, but the possibility of the aliens offering one nation a weapon over the others puts everyone on the path to war. The “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality turns characters like Michael Stuhlbarg’s government agent into de facto villains. By this film’s reckoning, the enemy is the person who flat out refuses to communicate.
At first, Louise and Ian speak with their alien counterparts in basic words and phrases, the way you would teach language to a toddler. The aliens (affectionately named Abbott and Costello), respond by writing in what’s referred to as “nonlinear orthography”, which is a fancy way of saying “words that look like coffee stains”. All of this is then juxtaposed with news footage of riots and looting. The mere presence of the aliens is a massively destabilizing force, and as the intelligence community refuses to share information with the public at large, news anchors around the globe talk of stock markets collapsing and worldwide communication breaking down.
It makes perfect sense, then, for our heroine to be a professor of linguistics, someone able to cross language barriers and bridge the unknowable gaps of alien communication. Amy Adams plays Louise as a person whose total understanding of language is both a blessing and a curse. She can communicate concepts both big and small in several languages, but still struggles to understand certain aspects of human nature. Louise is also a severely wounded character, still living with the grief of losing her daughter to a debilitating disease. Villeneuve provides us plenty of flashbacks to illustrate Louise’s grief, which themselves tie back into the alien plot at hand. The way these threads weave together becomes a fascinating narrative trick, and plays out far more naturally than similar tricks pulled by Christopher Nolan. Villeneuve refuses to beat us too hard over the head with it, but still makes his point.
But because so much of Arrival feels subdued, it’s easily Villeneuve’s least emotionally demanding film yet. Neither as overwhelmingly anguished as Prisoners nor as white-knuckle tense as Sicario, Arrival feels like a film very much intent on keeping a level head in trying times. Emotions run hot on the fringes as we watch the fabric of society beginning to fray, but the characters at the heart of the story stand firm.
That’s why this film feels so vital right now.
Beyond explicitly bridging the communication gap, Arrival shows us how crucial it is to keep an open mind in trying times. Between opposing nations, bitter political rivalries, and even amongst one another, if we’re not willing to just calm the fuck down and open a dialogue, what hope is there for any of us? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there definitely are no aliens offering us help or weapons or even apocalyptic ultimatums right now. All we have is each other. It may be the cinematic equivalent of “let’s hear what the giant meteor has to say,” but there’s still hope to be found in an open dialogue.
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