As I’m sitting here thinking about how to write a review of Arrival, the movie adaptation of “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, I’m having trouble figuring out where to start. While many are clamoring for the next installment of the saga that takes place in a “galaxy far, far away”, I’ve been wanting to see Arrival since I first saw the trailer. I’m not even sure why. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sure how to describe it. I guess you could say that love a sci-fi flick full of space battles and laser fights just as much as the next guy but the thought that we could wake up tomorrow and find a space ship parked in our back yard just hits closer to home than some distant planet full of furry creatures.
I confess that I have not read the story on which this movie is based so what you will read below is my reaction to the movie and the movie only. I won’t be able to speak to its accuracy as compared to the story or whether the concepts of the story were faithfully carried over to the movie. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The movie stands fine on its own.
If you haven’t seen the trailers, Arrival is a first contact type of story. One day, a dozen alien pods (giant spaceships) land at what appears to be random locations throughout the world. World governments immediately mobilize and cordon off the landing site in an effort to try to determine why these ships have arrived and what they want. They quickly find a way to communicate with their visitors. However, there’s one problem. They can’t understand what their visitors are saying.
Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a prominent linguist, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). They are given the task of deciphering the language of their guests ASAP and find out the purpose of the visit.
As they engage with their visitors, they quickly realize that verbal communications is not enough. By switching to written language, the aliens quickly respond with their own writings in the form of circular symbols that vary in meaning depending on its shape and other attributes. After a lot of work, they soon understand more of what the aliens, aka Heptapods, are saying. When the phrase “offer weapon” is given by the Heptapods, the team and their military masters suddenly finds themselves in a dilemma. Other governments apparently believe that the aliens are about to use a weapon against them but Louise is more convinced that the aliens are there to offer them something else, like a tool.
With the rest of the world ready to blow their alien visitors back to where they came from, Louise and Ian work diligently to better understand what it is the Heptapods really are saying, before it’s too late and the military pulls them out. They are just about to make a breakthrough when rogue elements within the military try to blow up the alien ship that they are visiting, escalating the situation.
After some intense analysis by Ian, he finds that the key to the puzzle appears to be a new understanding of the concept of time. Louise rushes back to the pod and actually ends up having a one-on-one conversation with one of their visitors. At this point, it is revealed to her that what they are offering is their language, a universal language of sorts, that helps a fluent speaker understand time in a different sense and allows that individual to see into the future. The Heptapods are ready to offer this gift to humanity because they have seen that by doing so, they will themselves be helped by humanity 3,000 years into future.
This ability to see the future, dream or whatever you want to call it, Louise experiences this throughout the movie. I won’t go into all the details on how this works as I think it’ll give away a bit too much but taking this together with her own family life and the life of her daughter, the conclusion of the movie is powerful.
In fact, while many sci-fi flicks are big on booms and bangs, flashy special effects and high tempo, Arrival delivers drama with introspection, deep thought and silence. A lot of silence. In fact, this silence delivers as much tension and at the edge of your seat excitement as the best action scenes would. Because, as much as Arrival is a sci-fi movie, it’s also a movie about suffering. It’s a movie about love and ethics. Louise sums it up best when she asks Ian if he would change anything if he knew what the future held. At that point, she already knew what the future held. She knew the happy moments to expect, she knew the pain that lay ahead. Yet, despite this knowledge, she carried on. Was it out of selfishness or was it out of loyalty to humanity? Was it for the love of her daughter or just simple determination that what the future is, the future will be? Or was it simply knowing that without the future, she wouldn’t have been able to help solve the problem of the Heptapod language? Honestly, I’m not sure what to take away from the movie.
I think one thing is for certain. Arrival is one of the most thought-provoking movies I’ve seen in a while. Rarely do I exit a theater or turn off the TV after watching a movie and the events of the movie continue to swirl around in my mind as they have with this movie. If you’re a sci-fi fan, watching Arrival is a must. Even if you’re not, Arrival is well worth the time to watch just for the human drama. Go watch it…now.