A month ago, many people living in the United States communicated their political thoughts through the ballot during the Presidential Election. A tiny slither of paper can harbor many different connotations in a time of discontent and immense upheaval, which is unfortunately the kind of society we live in nowadays. While half the nation was joyously celebrating in a state of rapture upon the arrival of a new president to lead our country, the other side is reeling in despair and trepidation of what is to come in the future. Even though Arrival is a sci-fi movie and not necessarily a political satire (I could be wrong), it does sort of starkly depict the painful divide in our country in this day and age.
*This movie review might contain spoilers*
Twelve dark, peculiarly-shaped structures suddenly start appearing on various different locations across all corners of the globe. Each and every one of these strange edifices are immensely gargantuan in terms of size, and they levitate just a couple of meters above the ground. As you could imagine, the sudden appearance of these enigmatic ships cause a domino effect of crippling fear and mass hysteria. The entire world is now in martial law, violence and looting is at an all-time high, and all the world leaders and conglomerates are divided in how to deal with this predicament. At the same time, the United States military carefully deploys soldiers within close proximity to one of the twelve structures (one of which is situated in Montana), and establish communication efforts with the alien race known as ‘heptapods’. These steps are done in order to gauge a better understanding of their purpose for coming to Earth. The military recruits an esteemed linguist named Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) to lead these expeditions and offer their insight.
Near the beginning of the movie, viewers witness flashback sequences that show the birth, blissful childhood years, and melancholic death of Louise’s teenage daughter, Hannah. This profound feeling of anguish and grief from this event has a pervading presence throughout the duration of the film. At some point during the movie the audience is explained that the name ‘Hannah’ is a palindrome, it has the same beginning and end. After giving a few days to let my entire thoughts on this movie to sink in, I think the word palindrome isn’t a far-fetched thing to say when describing the overall story of this film. I am not going to spoil what happens in the end, but I can definitely say that it’s the kind of conclusion that will instill a wide array of many different thoughts and interpretations. The form of communication in which the heptapods’ talk with others is nonlinear and utilizes circular-shaped symbols, which Louise is able to decipher and interpret with her fellow colleagues.
One thing that truly struck me as a viewer was that this movie is gorgeously shot. If I were to pause the movie at any time, I’d probably have hundreds of screenshots worth putting into this post; it’s a visually-compelling experience to behold. The foreboding atmosphere and unorthodox camerawork (shots that defy the laws of gravity and dream/flashback sequences) add a unique aura that’s incredibly esoteric even for a sci-fi film. In addition, it instills an interestingly mind-altering effect that builds on the narrative’s ideas on linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf theory), which is defined as:
“We perceive things differently depending on the language we know and the culture from which it’s spoken.”
On another note, Arrival is thematically different from other films that involve extraterrestrial life. Most movies within this genre tend to be action-packed extravaganzas, while this to me is centered more around existential dilemmas and personal regrets; which piqued my interest as an observer since my favorite anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, has some similar themes as well. As Louise arduously continues to investigate the lexicon of the heptapods, she starts to lose a grip on reality by experiencing more reoccurring flashbacks of her deceased daughter, and visions of the future, which is immediately brought to our attention when Ian inquisitively asks her if she’s dreaming in their language.
Despite the incredible linguistic and mathematic efforts that Louise and Ian have done in order to attain a better understanding of the alien creatures, the U.S. military continually questions the motive and effectiveness of this overall endeavor, and the other nations begin to harbor feelings of distrust as well. When the science department erroneously interpret one of the heptapod symbols as a sign that signifies “weapon”, China and other world leaders viewed this as an act of impending warfare, and immediately decide that offensive action needs to be implemented in order to maintain the longevity of humanity. To some extent, I think this is a statement on human nature in general; we have a compulsive tendency to treat fear of the unknown with violence. Throughout history, whether it be for bureaucratic reasons or other motives in mind, humans have usually acted rashly during a state of pandemonium without taking into consideration the possible consequences that would stem from their actions.
All in all, Arrival is a captivatingly groundbreaking film within the sci-fi cinematic landscape. Denis Villeneuve presents us with concepts regarding linguistics and non-linear time frames in a way that is socially aware and relevant towards the current events ingrained within today’s society. It is a movie that drives home the powerful message that once we set our differences aside by communicating in a more openly manner, we are capable of putting an end to strife that is caused by preconceptions and misunderstandings.