Arrival: A Movie Review
[This review contains spoilers]
Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is an adaptation of a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Arrival largely follows the character of Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, a linguistics professor, hired to translate the language used by extra-terrestrial beings known as Heptapods (seven legged aliens). This work of fiction is about mysterious alien crafts making unanticipated appearances in 12 sites across the world. The US Army, alarmed by these appearances, takes a defensive stance and tries to understand their motive.
The movie felt like a cross between science fiction and psychological thriller. The Heptapods communicate with circular figures with spikes in and around it which makes it look like a figure made out of the Rorschach inkblot test.
Here is the catch: unlike human scripts which start and finish from one side of the page to the other; the scripts identified with Heptapod communication are categorically different. They have a circular looking script because their perception of time itself is non-linear; they do not make distinctions between the past, present, and future. For them, all of time can be seen at once. The movie grips all of us when Louise deciphers how these advanced species of aliens communicate. In learning their language, Louise is enabled to look at her past, present and future all at the same time.
Denis Villeneuve strategically compiles this movie in a way that serves the same purpose. It started as a memoir; Louise plays with her newborn child and eventually loses her to cancer. We as the audience are programmed to perceive time linearly which is why we settle to believe that Louise is in a state of grief when she entered the program and the ‘arrival’ (of the aliens) was a monumental project in her career. However, this is not true. What seems to be the past events are not what they seem; it is because of her ability to perceive time from a non-conventional angle that allow her to view her own future and the events that transpire in her life, including the death of her daughter.
Jungian archetypes can be understood as symbols that are cross-culturally prevalent, and shaped by human history and can influence conscious behavior. These archetypes transform to images and motifs when they enter the consciousness and are expressed by individuals and their cultures. In the movie, the Heptapods are capable of creating a new archetype from the unconscious that is ready to solidify in the conscious world and create a contemporary reality. This is their gift to humankind. The ability to move beyond linear time and be able to ‘relate to others’; the ones unknown to us. ‘Relating to others’ as a narrative theme becomes a potent part of the story. Human behaviour tends to perceive the immigrants and the unfamiliar as a threat to civilisation. They are unfamiliar and hence considered to be dangerous; something to be feared. We make them our enemy, because we are not comfortable with events without an explanation. We are vulnerable and afraid of the unknown. A lot of other archetypes emerged as I continued my perusal of this narrative. We see the ‘warrior’ archetype that seeks to displace responsibility and put the blame on someone else for everything that is going wrong.
The movie also explores the themes of depression and loneliness. Louise starts having premonitions which is when she gets glimpses of her future. She falls in love with Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, during their work together in studying the aliens. They get married and have a baby. She could see all of this and how she will lose her daughter in a few years. David Kessler, world’s foremost expert on grief and the proponent of the five stages of grief (with co theorist Elizabeth Kubler Ross), in an interview with Scott Berinato, said that humans suppress their sadness because they feel like the moment they acknowledge the presence of their sadness, they will be attacked by these “gang of feelings” such as depression and anxiety. He says that this doesn’t take precedence at all. This gang of negative emotions do not overrun the sadness and the very act of acknowledging this emotion facilitates its healing. This draws many parallels with Louise’s circumstances. She transcends time in a way where she gets to see the impending events of her life. Even after knowing what death can do to a person, Louise is proposed with the only two options: to choose this life or to not.
Death is a monster. It swallows you whole. It is an aching throb in your heart and it is that lump in your throat. It is that grief no one wants to confront. Caught between this predestination paradox, Louise makes a brave choice. She uses her premonitions to make decisions in her present. At the end of the movie we see General Shang, the Chinese leader calling off his decision to attack the aliens. There was no way of stopping him but everything changed when Louise called him from their base camp. She told him the last few words of his dying wife. The Mandarin lines translated to the extent of “there are no winners in a war, only widows”. All this happens 18 months later when General Shang meets Louise and hands over his contact number and she realises how that was another premonition. She calls him in the present and that one phone call saves this world another war.
Arrival is a meta-narrative that explores inter-species relationships in a space where time is not linear. It leaves you with an overwhelming question: If you could see your whole life in a glimpse without a happy ending, would you still choose to live through it?
Bidhidatta Bhagawati (She/her) has completed her Bachelors in Psychology and Liberal Arts. She dreams of becoming a filmmaker and a loving parent to her three cat babies. She can be followed on Instagram (accio_serotonin) and on Medium (medium.com/@bydhi123)