It’s rare nowadays that anything I watch is capable of capturing my attention for longer than twenty minutes, without my succumbing to the temptation of mousing over the video progress bar, opening another tab on my browser or checking my emails- I watch a lot of television on my laptop. Arrival proved to be an exception to this rule, and reminded me of why I enjoy going to the movies so much.
I was enraptured from beginning to end, to the extent that I was no longer aware of my body- resulting in a stiff back and dry mouth- and became irritated whenever something or someone pulled me out of it. Arrival is a masterpiece; one of those films that you start discussing with your friends the moment you leave the cinema, or alternately sit in silent contemplation, still wrapped up in the impression it has left on you.
The limited number of sets and major characters gives the film the air of a play, with the army base at the foot of the alien space ship and the space ship itself being the two primary locations and the film having only three or four major characters. From the base, connections extend to the foreign military and intelligence at their own alien ships via video call- but these outsiders only appear in tiny boxes on screens that can easily be switched off- highlighting the tenuousness of these links and the fragility of the façade of worldwide cooperation over the issue of the supposed alien invasion. The base has an almost claustrophobic atmosphere of being cut off from the rest of the world, increased by its poky design and dim lighting, which is of course what happens once the world leaders get paranoid and the human crisis over the potentially harmful intention of the aliens reaches its head.
The aliens’ gift of their language, which also carries with it the double-edged sword of their non-linear perception of time, highlights the emphasis on the importance of communication, which is what is needed to avert the crisis and eventually bring humanity together in closer bonds. This is a message that is always relevant and seems particularly pertinent now in our current fractious political and social climate; increasing our understanding of each other’s point of view even if we disagree with it is essential to living alongside each other.
Simplicity and thoughtfulness are the defining characteristics of the film, in plot, dialogue and pacing. Some may call the pacing too slow at the start, but I appreciated the unhurried laying out of events; from the first contact depicted from the perspective of ordinary people, to Louise’s recruitment by the military and her and Ian’s initial encounters with the aliens. I was fascinated by the development of their understanding of the alien’s language and its completely, well, alien nature to the structure of human languages, and would have liked to see some more of it although I can see how that would have alienated some viewers (alright, I’ll stop).
The relatively slow and action-less nature of the first two-thirds of the film also helped to increase the impact of the revelation in the last act; that the montage of Louise and her child at the start of the film are actually events that take place in the future, after the departure of the alien ships, and that Louise has been given their ability to essentially time travel between various points in her own life.
I earlier referred to this as a double-edged sword, and the film is similarly ambivalent about whether this is a good or bad thing. This mode of perception grants Louise the ability to avert worldwide crisis through knowing exactly who to call and what to say, but on the other side, she also has to watch her daughter grow up with the knowledge that she will soon die.
The fact that the film ends with this dilemma demonstrates how, despite being a film ostensibly about first contact with an alien race, this is a story concerned above all with exploring the depths of human nature in the midst of emotional turbulence and the difficult choices we all must make.
Louise must make a difficult choice with no ‘right’ answer, and the silent absence of Ian in her memories of the future after she has told him about the choice she made speaks volumes. Ian seeks the false refuge offered by running away from the bad situation and refusing to make the same difficult choice as Louise, a mode of behaviour which the viewer may find cowardly, yet possibly reflects their own secret desires in the face of what’s going on in the world today. It is easier to run away and block off communication from fear than it is to accept the uncertainty of it, like Ian does and the domino effect of the countries of the world going silent after the translation of the aliens’ message which appears to herald war. Conversely, it takes courage to live in the moment and enjoy its happiness despite knowledge that it is limited, whether this is Louise’s prescient certainty or our own vague fears and hazy awareness of the fact.
We can watch Arrival and respect Louise’s courage, and hope that our own would be and is just as great.
Let’s learn to work and play (and get along with each other):
Image Credits: Wikipedia