Posted on December 3, 2016
In 1951, during that short breath America takes between wars, director Robert Wise delivered an elegant, hopeful movie about an alien from an advanced civilization bringing a gift to our government. That same year, The Thing From Another World (later remade as John Carpenter’s The Thing to much greater effect) put forth a much less hopeful thesis on alien encounters.
There couldn’t be more difference between these two movies, one plays to our better angels while the other harnesses our worst fears. One is finely wrought and delicate in design while the other is blunt and obvious.
Arrival is our The Day The Earth Stood Still.
I’m going to talk about Arrival but before I put in the spoiler warning break, I just want to say that if you don’t want to cry in front of your girlfriend, don’t go see this movie with her. Take her to see Independence Day 2: Even More Independenter instead.
SPOILERS for ARRIVAL follow….
Science fiction in the movies is most often used as a medium to dazzle the eye with fancy special effects. Most are little more than war movies dressed up with laser cannons and pulse rifles. But science fiction can also be used as a medium to discuss our innermost truths and that’s what Arrival does.
At its heart, this movie asks the same question over and over again. Even when you don’t know it’s asking the question, it’s still asking that question. If you knew how your life was going to play out, all the little miracles and all the devastating tragedies, would you still go forward with it?
Like Westworld, Arrival uses a broken timeline, a story told out of order, to talk about linear time and memory. But whereas Westworld is asking, how do memories, even deeply buried ones, form what we think of as consciousness, Arrival is asking how would humans behave if they could see all of time at once?
Twelve giant, featureless spaceships arrive on various parts of the Earth without warning or attempt at communication. Teams from every host country are sent into the ships to attempt to speak with the occupants; giant, seven legged creatures called Septapods. What happens next sounds like it might be boring, but it is actually edge-of-your-seat intense. The two civilizations begin to build a bridge of words.
The movie tips its love for language early on when one linguist translates a Sanskrit word as meaning “War” and the other, the protagonist played by Amy Adams, translates it more deftly as, “A desire for more cows.”
At one point, the fate of humanity teeters on the definition of a Septapod word that could either mean “tool” or “weapon.” When the Septapods urge humans to use the thing, whatever it is, saying, “You have the weapon. Use the weapon now.”, the nations of the Earth break off communication and go onto a war footing, both against the Septapods and each other.
It is a tremendous moment, filled with even more angst due to the lunatic abyss our world is actually about to fall into, from which they are only delivered when Adams puts together five or six clues spread throughout the movie and realizes that the “weapon” is the Septapod language itself, one that rewires your brain to let you see all of time at once, the way the Septapods see it.
It’s this moment, when all the “flashbacks” to Louise’s “past” fall into place, when you will make that ugly face and those horrible hitching noises in your throat and you’ll start wiping at your eyes. If you’re lucky, your significant other will be too busy crying their own eyes out to notice.
You can walk out of a movie with a lot of different feelings. Some leave you hyped up for action while others leave you existentially lonesome, but when you leave Arrival, you feel stunned by new understanding.