Warning: This review contains some spoilers, so only read on if you have already seen the movie, or don’t mind finding out some revelations of the plot.
Science fiction is not a genre with which I have much familiarity, and for the most part I avoid it in favour of other movies. Arrival, however, defied both my expectations and what I thought of before as typical conventions, and I think of it now as a film universal in its scope and its reach. This film could be described in so many ways, since the number of its themes continues to expand the longer I reflect. But to me, I think of Arrival most of all as a beautifully filmed meditation on life, on language and on unity.
I suppose that doesn’t really help in narrowing it down, so I’ll try to be a little more specific. The movie follows a linguistics professor, Louise, (played by Amy Adams) at a time of great global upheaval, after a series of spacecraft have landed at various locations around the world. Louise is tasked with decoding the language of these alien creatures aboard the spacecraft; they communicate, however, through symbols rather than through the spoken word. Over the course of the film, a number of flashbacks are interwoven amid the narrative, which are eventually revealed to be flashforwards, reflecting in a mysterious way the nonlinearity of time as experienced by the aliens and, through their intervention, by Louise as well. These short vignettes of Louise’s future life with her daughter were beautiful glimpses of the ordinariness of life, in which the surrounding sounds of nature were crisp and clear, and infused with peace.
When these pieces all slid into place and formed a coherent framework in time, the result was profoundly moving. I confess I even shed (more than a few) tears. In the final scenes of the movie, the extent of Louise’s prophetic knowledge becomes clear. Even though she knows the tragic fate which will befall her not-yet-born daughter, her actions indicate a clear choice: suffering is always worthwhile for the sake of love. Her knowledge of what will happen and her understanding of the great suffering she will have to endure do not deter her from choosing life, from choosing love. Love necessarily involves risk and some measure of pain, because to deprive love of the vulnerability and openness which often lead to pain would be to deprive love of its true and fullest essence. The love given and experienced by Louise (and specifically her vocation of motherhood) becomes a part of her identity, and it filters into her consciousness before the concrete conditions for this calling have appeared.
It may seem that this story of Louise and her daughter is at odds with the greater, overarching narrative of the alien “arrival,” but I think the two complement each other in a surprisingly beautiful way. They showcase how even at the broadest and most global level, our entry point is always through the personal dimension. When we abandon the personal dimension of our love or our “theories,” we lose in a sense our capacity for compassion and it is easier for fear, hatred and division to enter in. This was seen in the reaction of different nations to the extraterrestrial. When considered only as something unknown and impersonal, the proposed tactics of dealing with the aliens involved aggression and war. However, Louise suggests a different solution, by attempting to connect with the aliens on a personal level. Such a connection also involves risk (and Louise literally has to step out of her comfort zone by taking off her safety suit), but she maintains that in order to make progress with the aliens and to understand their language, she must have a personal connection with them. She must allow them to see her human face. Language is about more than its scientific, objective dimension; it is also, necessarily, intertwined with the speaker, because language is a living process and one of our ways of being in the world and in community.
So perhaps this movie is most of all about connection, whether it is between two different species or creatures, or between a mother and child: the first and fundamental human relationship. Love involves vulnerability and risk, and this means that it also involves suffering, which we often (and understandably) view as negative. But maybe it is our fear of suffering that actually holds us back from experiencing authentic connection and keeps us chained to the fear and disunity, forgetting our shared humanity and our equal dignity beneath it.