'Arrival' Insists on Conversation, on Communication, on Sharing Experience
If we're thinking in circles, maybe this arrival was always in motion.
"Memory is a strange thing," says Louise (Amy Adams). "We are so bound by time, by its order." We are so bound, and so are the screens reflecting us, the movies. Louise appears to be speaking at the start of Arrival, introducing her as a mother addressing her infant daughter, bathed in golden light, slivers of sensory experience turned into tight shots of faces and hands. In these images, Louise contemplates her child in a present moment, but her voiceover looks back on a past that does not lead to the future she anticipates. Memory, she goes on, "doesn't work like I thought it did."
Arrival, in seeming to introduce Louise, is also tilting towards its multiple directions, its movements backward and forward, circling around. A movie that's bound by time -- one scene leads to another, a linear story unfolds -- it's also a movie that questions that order, as it happens. For all that it offers that is familiar, in its focus on a mother and child or in its aliens-on-earth adventure, Arrival offers innovation in this, in its exploration of expectations, assumptions, and order, in its suggestion that sequential thinking is not inevitable, that cause and effect might be fictional, a product of limited vision instead of a singular reality, or more precisely, a raft of realities stitched together so they might look like one.
This exploration at first takes a more or less familiar form, as Louise encounters aliens from another world. In the scenes that follow the film's opening, you learn that Louise is a linguistics professor, which in the movies means she's an expert in communication. Her class is interrupted by news on her students' phones that alien space vessels -- large dark gray pods -- are hovering over a dozen locations on the planet. "Class dismissed," she says hurriedly, a long shot suggesting her smallness in a cavernous lecture hall with empty chairs. Still, Louise pursues order, making her way home (a phenomenal designer house with large windows looking out on water), where she makes dinner, drinks a glass of wine, reassures her mother by phone, and at last, falls asleep with the television turned on, bathed now in an icy blue light.
The next morning, she's summoned by the military, in the form of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who offers her a brief audio recording of sounds apparently made by the aliens. Louise offers some resistance to instant analysis, suggesting that communication has parameters, a kind of order, but also might not, depending on the aliens' background. Her reasonable assessment disappoints Weber, but eventually he brings her in, traveling by chopper to one of the aliens' hovering locations, already surrounded by human structures, ramps and buildings and elevators, and machines to monitor and weapons to target the visitors, who come to be called the Heptapods, as humans do their best to comprehend what they cannot, quite.
The quickly constructed campus around the space ship where this story takes place are filled with men, of course, and so Louise becomes a particular kind of audience guide, much like Emily Blunt's Kate Macer in Sicario, also directed by Denis Villeneuve. She's alone and also special, an expert with gifts and intuitions, and most markedly a moral capacity, able to see the wrong steps men want to take before they take them. She resists the impulse to military options, the fear that leads to violence, exemplified in the film by a bank of monitors showing world leaders arguing and increasingly afraid. You see her standing before these monitors, again lit by screens, again isolated even as she's surrounded, this time by men in uniforms and all manner of technologies.
Louise is assigned a partner as she's instructed to communicate with the aliens, a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). Together, they have new experiences, their gravities reversed as they walk upside down through a man-made tunnel to get close to the aliens. At the top of the tunnel, they can see the aliens -- two of them, anyway, soon nicknamed Abbot and Costello -- while protected by a giant window. Setting aside the craziness of this movie-world best-guess, that the military might hold back aliens who've traveled to earth with a super-strong window, the visual allows Louise and Ian to look at Abbot and Costello as they try to speak to them, using words on whiteboards, gestures, and voice. Louise makes the decision to be vulnerable, to take off her protective gear, to show her face and form, to approach the window. Ian follows her.
This leads to a breakthrough, no surprise, as the aliens respond with circles, black-smoky-gaseous emissions that emerge from what we might call "fingers" or "tentacles", depending on how fearful your inclination might be. Remarkably, and speedily, Louise and Ian start sharing ideas with the aliens, communicating concepts and fragments, if not always the sort of sense that appeals to the mightily metaphorical military. When pieces of interpreted phrases seem ominous, the faces on monitors, and Weber's face as well, react with fear. The fear is seen in their draw weapons, their postures. Louise resists again.
However this plot works out (and it's not surprising, either), the movie's rhythmic, emotional, and moral focus aligns -- or circles -- with Louise's. Her communication with the aliens turns into another journey, into her memories, made and not yet made, or always made. She sees her future, she reconceives her past, she shares words and thoughts with her daughter, Hannah, over time. The film offers a series of actors playing Hannah, each revealed in lovely light, their faces close and fleeting, their efforts to communicate, to share moments, to understand one another, to reach across time that is, increasingly, in the movie's visual landscape, cyclical and circular, emulating the aliens' language, imagining how radical rethinking might affect experience.
Louise's maternal experience is at once predictable and brilliant, as she contends with grief over Hannah's too short life, her decisions that make and shape that life and her own, her awareness of her decisions before and as she makes them, her ability to see the circles of time that you only see late. But that cliché -- mothers and children as a universal appeal -- also opens out the concept and makes it available to those who don't need to see it filtered yet again, as it always is, through the lights and screens of men.
This concept, the inflection of different thinking, is apparently accidental in our own current moment but also determined by it and around it. That's what makes Arrival's arrival now, at this post-election moment, more striking than it might have been. Or, if we're thinking in circles, maybe this arrival was always in motion. So many individuals and communities are afraid. How can we understand, grieve, respond, and resist?
The movie insists on conversation, on communication, on sharing experience. The movie's very premise, that time is not only ordered in one way, here offers a heartening premise, that understanding the artifice of time, the impositions of its order, might prove expansive, for memory and also for what happens next. Understanding doesn't necessarily change these impositions or even promote hope for alternatives (as might appear in a conventional time-travel movie, for example), but understanding might encourage empathy and efforts to speak and, most important, to listen.
As Louise fights for mutual respect and integrity, she changes her memory and her future at the same time. We might fight too, and in so doing, we might also better grasp what the fight is about.