I was excited to see this film for several reasons. I have heard great things about Denis Villeneuve (his films have not, to date, made my “must see” list) and I have long had an interest in “alien visitors.” In a note of disclosure, I have been active, in the past, in the Mutual UFO Network, and my interest in UFOs goes back to the mid-1960s as a child when I first read Frank Edwards’ “Flying Saucers-Serious Business.” I have had the privilege of talking to the son of the USAF officer who first reported the crash at Roswell in 1947 (he says his dad let him hold some of the recovered material. I may have to cover this issue in a future blog post), so I always love me a good “little green men” movie.
This film covers ground of a much more serious and deep thinking level than something as charitable as ET or menacing as “Independence Day.” While the attempts to communicate and determine the intentions of the visitors in “Arrival” make up much of the film’s narrative, screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s interpretation of Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of your LIfe,” there is much more at stake than the usual “are they a threat or here to help” story. That is the concern of governments and nations, but not of our team of professionals brought in to divine the “threat level” of the twelve ships who have placed themselves around the globe.
Villeneuve allows the viewer to ponder the daunting task before the scientists, mathematicians, etc. But the focus of the film is chiefly on the contributions of the linguist on the team. From the film’s first moments, we jump into her life very personally. As a former teacher, I saw how she was using her work in her classroom to staunch the pain of personal loss that we see in the opening minutes of the film. At the risk of muddying the narrative, the filmmakers draw us into the story with the feeling that we know more about the main character, played with subtlety and depth by Amy Adams, than anyone else on the planet.
I’m going to be careful that I don’t tell too much of the story, it’s that good, because film enthusiasts will be talking about this one for a long time to come. There are refreshing new twists in the world of the “heptopods” (7 legs) that add a unique dynamic to the “arrival” of the visitors. The interior of the ship is a rough-hewn hollow corridor that provides gravity on all sides. This sounds like a fun twist…until you look down and feel you should be falling. Gravity helps us see which was is “up”; but what if ALL ways are “up?” It’s quite disorienting to the investigation.
Adams’ character ends up driving much of the progress the team makes in discerning the intentions of the visitors because without language you can’t have a “meeting of the minds.” It’s the last 30 minutes of the film that make it all begin to come together, although some will walk out confused they way I did exiting “2001” in 1969 and wondering what the last 30 minutes of the light show and orbiting fetus was all about.
Arrival doesn’t hit you over the head with a “message” other than ask you to question some assumptions we make about reality as humans. Besides challenging “up,” gravity, and “intelligence,” the most important questions to be answered relate to TIME. Again, I don’t want to throw around spoilers, but we often speak in generalizations about our concepts of time in a post-Einsteinian world, but put those assumptions in the context of a personal journey and you get a story like the one told in “Arrival.”
Go see this film with someone you love to have deep conversations with and give yourself time after the movie to go somewhere quiet where you and your fellow traveler can bounce ideas off each other pressing the assumptions of the movie in different possible directions. You shouldn’t be looking for a right answer, but you should be contemplating important concepts. As you discuss time, be sure to include the language Adams’ Dr. Banks decodes, and how the “figures” tell us something of how the visitors perceive time.
The idea of time as humans conceive it has been of great interest to me throughout my life, but particularly since reading recent accounts of Near-Death Experiences by authors like Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander and Hong Kong businesswoman Anita Moorjani. Moorjani’s work in particular addresses how time is very different when experienced on a spiritual basis as opposed to the narrative way that humans are comfortable. Both books are quick reads with big questions. Take the time to read them soon. “Arrival” takes advantage of the option of being a narrative, with flashbacks, and a very unusual wrap-up to finish the film.
Experience it on the big screen…and be ready for deep conversations for days afterwards. Cheers.