When I first saw the trailer for Arrival, my mind went immediately to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, the 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster about a scientist who receives and deciphers alien communication.
In Contact, Foster’s character Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway fights setback after setback in order to achieve her goal of finally making contact with an unknown alien communicator. When the alien appears as her father, Ellie’s expectation of seeing something radical, different, or monstrous — and by reason a look at the bigger picture of the universe — is washed away by a mirror that points her back to the human race for answers.
In Arrival, Amy Adams stars as renowned linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who becomes a critical asset for the United States government after an alien ship touches down somewhere in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed in various parts of the world creating fear and tension for their hosts, and no one knows whether the aliens have come in peace or to wage war.
Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a military crew who records every interaction as the scientists try to teach the heptapods basic English in order to create common ground from which they can begin to interpret the strange visual language the aliens use.
When one of the words used by the heptapods is interpreted as “weapon,” the clock starts ticking as various world governments go on the defensive and prepare for military strikes. China begins mobilizing its army for a first strike against the aliens, setting up a powder keg that could embroil the planet against a technologically superior foe.
Neither Contact or Arrival involve religious warriors wielding lightsabers or weapons of mass destruction raining down on our monuments. Instead, both movies allude to something greater — a lesson or point of introspection. That doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of action — the intense personal conflicts are in their own way violent and visceral.
The most compelling aspect of the movie is emotional rawness that pierces the heart by way of the brain. Sure, it’s heady fare with some mentioning of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an introduction to linguist techniques, and a kicker that spins everything on its head, but we wouldn’t be as committed to the story without Banks’ backstory — or is it frontstory?
Interspersed throughout the film are vignettes — loose pieces of Banks’ family life. We learn she is divorcee and has lost her child to cancer, thus we are given a glimpse into her wounds and the battle scars of her own life. Her quest to speak with the heptapods is a personal war against the loneliness that has consumed her, and as she tries to succeed in communicating with the aliens, the potential for a global conflict weighs heavily upon her shoulders.
Throughout the film’s running time as the conflict increases, we’re drawn into the heart of it all. Arrival, at its thematic core, is a story about the essence of communication. The movie makes us wonder at first, “Why are they here?” but the true question is, “What is communication, and why do we need it?”
We communicate in order to survive — whether to notify someone we are hungry or to discuss ideas to benefit all of humanity. We give directions, information, and insight; all of these things we do to ensure humanity lives another day. Communication also allows us to build relationships with each other. A smile tells us we are welcomed. A scowl turns us away.
And conflicts arise with miscommunication — whether it’s the speaker or listener’s fault. The inability to get a thought across with the right words or a misunderstanding on the part of the listener can lead to bitterness and sore feelings.
As we progress from the film’s beginning to its ending, the measure of time changes the perspective of communication as we learn that Banks’ daughter didn’t die in the past — she will die in the future. By learning the heptapods’ language, which is not bound by a forward progress type of reading but a circular form in which all time is now and later, Banks’ mind is rewired to think from a new perspective thanks to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which posits that language constructs and limits cognitive thinking.
By learning the heptapods’ language, Banks is given a tool — not a weapon — that’s key to uniting the world and bringing help to the heptapods.
But the ability to see the past, present, and future at any given moment manifests itself strangely at first. Her divorce and the reasons for it are revealed, and Banks lives through her daughter’s birth, life, diagnosis, and death — all of which have yet to happen.
The twist, in which her future influences her past, isn’t meant to be like one of Shyamalan’s recent surprises that goes off like a flash in the pan but leaves very little otherwise besides a ringing in our ears. Arrival’s shift means we’re not dealing with memories. Instead, Banks has been given the ability to see and live every moment of her life in an instance.
Which brings us to the movie’s most intense if statement — if you knew your future, would you choose to live it?
When the alien ships have left, Banks makes it clear there’s only one path she’ll follow — the only one she’s ever known. Though her future holds a broken marriage and a terminally ill child, these are relationships she won’t live her life without. There’s a poetic beauty in her character facing her fate with resolve. Instead of ducking the pain, she dives headfirst into her destiny, valuing the coming moments for what they’re worth.
Adams is a joy to watch, and she deserves all the accolades she receives for her performance. Warm yet fierce, her character shoulders the burden of an entire life’s worth of regret and joy, and Adams gives the role her all. Without her, Arrival loses its emotional core, and much of its meaning is lost to ether. In the quiet moments when Banks is with her daughter Hannah (Abigail Pniowsky), so much is left unsaid.
But you’ll still hear it.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, MIchael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia S carlett Dan, Jadyn Malone, Frank Schorpion, and Christian Jadah