As you watch Arrival, you can feel an uncanny intimacy developing between you and your immediate surroundings. You start experiencing moments of intimacy, surprise, confusion, thrill and delight. It’s not a life-changing experience, but it makes you think. It’s one of those movies that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It touches you in places that you didn’t know existed. Yet, at the end, it leaves you with an unsatisfactory feeling that takes time to sink in. (spoilers ahead)
The new science fiction movie has many complex themes, running parallel, trying to speak to you at the same time. The film opens with snapshots of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) with her daughter, leading to latter’s death before she reaches adolescence.
“There are days that define your story beyond your life like the day they arrived,” says Louise as 12 pod-shaped crafts land all over the earth at specific locations. Louise is called upon by military to communicate with aliens in order to understand their purpose of contacting humans. Who are they? Why are they here? What they want from us? These are some of the questions that Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) will try to unravel.
The film has its moments — you can identify with Louise as she enters the alien vessel to talk with unfamiliar beings from another world. Her curiosity mixed with fear is relatable. The building up of tension inside the vessel, leading to the appearance of heptapods (a seven-leg creature) on glass screens forms a powerful visual on screen.
Following the arrival of aliens in the film, you can see a growing tension in the world. China and Russia bring up one side of the weighing scale with both favouring a more aggressive approach towards aliens while the US is on the other side. The scientists from different countries are communicating with the aliens. However, no country is ready to share that information with others. Authorities in US government keep pestering Louise and Ian to find out the reason behind aliens’ visit. That makes things harder for Louise as she is also dealing with her personal grief.
Louise’s endeavour to decipher the language of heptapods eventually leads her to expand her own understanding of life and this forms the core idea of Arrival. Unlike her colleagues, she heavily depends on her own intuition to understand how aliens think and function. While she is trying to crack the alien language, Louise is also witnessing the future of her daughter (a plot twist that viewers get to see in final scenes). So instead of the living memories of her daughter, Louise is having the visions of her daughter from the future throughout the movie.
The Arrival is based on the short story – Story of Your Life written by Ted Chiang in 1998. Reading this short story helps one understand the hidden meanings behind some of the ideas used in the movie. The story is written as a first-person account of Louise.
Both humans and heptapods experience time differently. While humans view time in a sequential order (past, present and future), heptapods view it non-linearly. They are not bound by time as humans are. “They experience all events at once and perceived a purpose underlying them all,” says Louise in Ted’s story.
Heptapods’ language is non-linear as well — they write in inky circulars. The circle here represents that there is no beginning or end. Their perception of time does not have an end or beginning and that’s why they are able to see all the events at the same time.
Heptapods always knew Louise’s potential to understand their language even before she meets them. In the final meeting with her, one of the heptapods (there are two) tells her that they will need humans’ help thousands of years from now. And that’s why they want her to understand their language and spread it later to the whole world.
But, how does Louise see her own future? By learning heptapods’ non-linear language that has the ability to unlock dormant mind and have visions from future. Having said that, Arrival is a not a time travel movie. It’s essentially about changing our narrow perception of time and seeing the world through the non-linear sense of time without shackles of past, present or future.
“But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as simultaneity,” says Louise in Ted’s story.
Louise knows that her daughter will die young. We see Louise asking her future husband, Ian Donnelly, in one of Arrival’s final scenes, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” This one line reflects the larger theme that has seeped in the entire movie. It seems to say that the story of our life is not defined by its future or destination, but it’s defined by our choices.
All this while, Louise carries this secret inside her and yet she makes that choice and does not alter the future. Instead, she is actively asserting her role in creating that future by making that choice.
The only way we can put aside the notion of time is to completely live in the moment. And Louise did exactly that by accepting and appreciating what life had in store for her. She chose life by making the arrival of her daughter possible, knowing very well that it would eventually cause her pain and loss.
“Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you. All I will have left from this moment is the heptapod language. So I pay close attention, and note every detail,” says Louise in the closing lines of Ted’s story.
Unlike the movie, the story by Ted Chiang has large portions of poignant moments of conversation between mother and daughter. It is this mother-child bond that is the heart and soul of the story.
It is in Louise’s sheer vulnerability, courage, fears and ability to take a risk in the face of lingering crisis, that story finds its voice. The heartfelt, melancholic performance of Amy Adams lends a poetic feeling to this otherwise cerebral story bubbling with complex ideas of language, time, space and being.