Have you seen this movie?
I didn’t know much about Arrival before going to see it, just that it had been generating a positive buzz. Alien arrival movies have provided fertile group before, so I thought why not? I knew, without a doubt, it couldn’t be as bad as Independence Day: Resurgence.
I guess I was about a quarter of the way in when I recognized the story. I couldn’t tell you who wrote it or where I’d read it, but I knew it. The end credits confirmed my conviction: Arrival is a movie adaption The Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, a 2000 Nebula award winner for best novella.
There seems to be an developing trend I’ve noticed in the last few movies I’ve seen, in that they are smaller, more personal, more character-driven stories. Captain America: Civil War didn’t deal with world ending villain-driven catastrophe, it dealt with two friends at odds. The Martian was about one man stranded on Mars: his efforts to survive and Earth’s efforts to rescue him. Similarly, although the catalyzing event in Arrival is the arrival of alien spaceships, it’s much more about the personal story of translator Louise (Amy Adams) and her efforts to unravel the alien’s communication than the effect the sudden appearance of alien intelligence has on the world at large.
So if you’re looking for flashing lasers, government buildings blowing up, and whole cities razed by alien-induced disasters, you’re going to be disappointed. The story here is much deeper than us versus them. It’s a story that challenges the viewer, leaving as much unsaid as said. It takes some effort to put the pieces together, and even then there’s nothing to tell you if you have them assembled correctly. Some like this sort of introspective film, some don’t; hopefully you know which type you are. Just know up front this is a summer blockbuster type movie that promotes style over substance.
Louise, a college linguistics instructor, has her class interrupted by reports that twelve UFOs have entered Earth’s orbit and taken up stationary positions over various places in the world. We learn various governments have made contact with the aliens, which are called Heptapods due to the seven visible limbs (they look like a squid crossed with an octopus).
Because of her reputation and security clearance, Louise is contacted by the government for her linguistic skills. She’s paired with Ian (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together they seek to understand the alien language so they can communicate, all the while under increase pressure from a more and more desperate government wallowing in uncertainly. It’s up to Louise and Ian to figure out why the Heptapods are here and what their intentions are before the leaders of mankind succumb to their basic violent instincts.
All of this is interwoven with a scenes of Louise and what is apparently her daughter. Memories, we assume.
In a world were movie goers have become accustomed to the frenetic pace and strung together explosions of action blockbusters, Arrival might fail to captivate. It’s a slow moving movie that requires some thought on the part of the audience, and a consideration of some concepts that definitely aren’t every day. It seems as though the perceive time in its entirety as opposed to linearly, as humans do. Louise makes a point in the movie to to say how learning a language often changes how one thinks, and that’s taken to it’s farthest extremes here as she becomes more fluent in their method of communication.
Which raises some interesting questions about time and memory, primarily that as Louise become more conversant, are the flashes of “memories” really memories? Or are they her experiences at different periods of time? If time is not linear, then there can be no memory — only experience. Try to wrap your head around that!
If you liked Memento and movies like that, you’ll probably like — really like — Arrival. If your tastes run more to big productions with awesome special effects, more action, and less thought, you’ll likely be somewhat bored.