I didn’t expect that Denis Villeneuve, the director of Prisoners and Sicario, would make the most optimistic film of the year. His previous films demonstrated a particular penchant for relentlessly bleak stories, so it surprised me when his newest film, Arrival, delivered one of the most uplifting messages about the human experience put to film in recent years.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of Your Life”, Arrival centers on Louise (played by Amy Adams), a professional linguist who is enlisted by the United States military to help translate alien communications. Twelve unidentified foreign objects land across the world - each in territory claimed by a major international power - including the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, Pakistan, and Australia. Louise is recruited to find out why these aliens have arrived on earth. Despite what might seem like a large-scale story, Arrival is quite the opposite; it’s an intimate portrayal of one woman’s experience. Through her experience, Villeneuve is able to portray a grander story of what it means to be human and to live in the world right now.
The central struggle of the film is Louise’s attempt to understand the aliens who arrived on earth. She faces the task of bridging the gap between our language and theirs. This is a fascinating way to frame a story about an alien invasion. Rather than turn the movie into a violent struggle of good versus evil, resident versus invader, Arrival focuses on a much less contrived and more natural conflict: the inability to understand one another. By making language and communication the primary conflict in the film, Villeneuve is making a profound statements about the modern human experience.
Arrival makes a poignant statement about our inability to understand one another. Louise’s role as a linguist makes her knowledgeable in the principles and constructs of language, therefore a perfect choice for getting through to the aliens. But even with her knowledge, she struggles to understand the aliens. It takes time to bridge this divide. It’s hard for me not to see how this situation mirrors our society’s own problems. Divisions between race, gender, and class are by no means new, but our struggle to communicate with those on the other side of these divides has become significantly more apparent. It’s possible this has happened because the mediums by which we communicate have changed at a faster rate than many of us have adapted. So, the freer flow of ideas leads to people becoming more exposed to ideas that scare them. I don’t mean this as a bad thing - people should be exposed to ideas that scare them. That’s what leads to progress. That’s the world that Arrival depicts; it portrays a world facing rapid change, forced to overcome the distance between ideas and language in order to survive.
What makes Arrival so special is the optimism imbued within this story. It does not excuse the gap between “us” and “them” as unconquerable. Instead, the film uses empathy to bridge the divide. More specifically, the film uses Louise’s empathy as a vehicle for this optimism. Louise’s empathy, for both the aliens and mankind, minimizes the divide between humans and aliens. It looks right in the face of an insurmountable divide and chooses takes a step forward. Unlike many other characters in the film, Louise does not fear the aliens because of their differences. She looks at these differences as an opportunity to learn and adapt, broadening her understanding of the world. It’s in this way that the film believes in humanity in a really refreshing way. Louise and her story stand out stand out because they are so markedly different than the what we’ve become accustomed to. This election demonstrated, on a massive scale, how threatened white America is by those that are different than them. Arrival uses its protagonist to articulate an antithesis to the current social condition.
It would be enough to leave it at this, but it doesn’t feel right to talk about Arrival without talking about how its optimism extends beyond its view of interpersonal conflict. While the story demonstrates a really moving perspective on how we conquer social divides, it also operates on a much more personal level. In the film, as Louise becomes more adept at understanding the alien’s language, she begins experiencing flashes (like memories) of her daughter - one she’s not even pregnant with yet. As it turns out, the alien’s language is not linear, therefore allowing Louise to see the future. This allows her to learn of her daughter’s birth and untimely death before they even happen. In this way, the story places Louise in a position to decide whether or not to fulfill the life she’s witnessed. It posits a really existential dilemma: how do you happily live your life when you know you will experience pain?
Arrival answers this question with rousing optimism: you live your life because, despite the pain, there will be joy. Despite knowing that her daughter will die in her teens, she still chooses to marry her husband and have a child with him. She makes that choice in the face of the terrifying pain. She does not shy away from her life due to a fear of suffering. This is where Ted Chiang derived the original title of this story: “The Story of Your Life” refers not to Louise, but to her daughter. When you strip Arrival down, it’s a humanist vision of what it means to live with and within pain. This has been particularly poignant for me in the face of this terrifying election and I can’t recommend seeing it enough.