Caution: this review contains major spoilers for the film.
It’s hard to talk about Arrival without spoiling the film. So much of what makes it more than just a well-done first contact story is tied up in its later developments. They recontextualize enough of the prior proceedings that trying to discuss the import or quality of the film without taking it as a whole is like trying to give someone directions without letting them know the destination.
But its premise is deceptively straightforward. In the world of Arrival, aliens have come to Earth in twelve ships scattered across the globe. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist brought by the U.S. Military to a ship located in Montana, in an attempt to help humanity communicate with this extraterrestrial presence. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a buffer provided by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Banks slowly but surely finds ways to speak with these seemingly unknowable beings, with the American team alternatively working with and against similar groups around the world attempting the same.
And then there’s the twist. The birth, death, and tragedy of Louise’s daughter, implied through the grammar of film to have occurred prior to the alien encounters we witness, turn out to actually have happened much later. The estranged husband hinted at early on turns out to be Donnelly. And Banks, through learning to think like the heptapods, and eventually through direct contact with the aliens, becomes unstuck in time herself. She experiences moments from what we’d consider the past, present, and future in nonlinear splendor, mixing them all up like a memory collage.
Despite the narrative trickery employed, the reveal itself isn’t so unfamiliar to those acquainted with the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Watchmen, or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. But what the twist lacks in novelty, it makes up for in thematic resonance. Like those works, Arrival uses the time-dilated nature of its story to comment on processing trauma, on the value of one’s experiences and life itself in a chaotic universe, and on the potential of the human mind to expand to contemplate greater possibilities.
You’re unlikely to find a film this year with as many intriguing philosophical implications as Arrival. In that, it is akin to The Prestige as a film with a twist that initially bowls you over in how it changes the reality of what’s been depicted up to that point, but which makes its bones from the implications of that new reality. In both films, what the reveals show about the characters and say about the value and nature of human life, linger long after the shock of the twist dissipates.
But the force of the movie does kick into high gear after the nonlinear fashion in which Louise starts to experience time is unveiled. It answers the plot-specific mystery that Arrival presents – why did the heptapods come here? These aliens, it turns out, have experienced time in this manner from the beginning, with their thoughts and information able to exist simultaneously in the past and the future. Their journey is to help Earth unify, to serve as a catalyst for cooperation, so that three millennia in the future, humanity will be able to help them. It is an intriguing, clockwork explanation for their presence in the film.
But beyond the on-the-ground (so to speak) plot mechanics of Arrival, what makes the film stand out is its exploration of how this change in temporal perspective also changes the way people think, how they value different things in their lives, how they approach and view the world. Arrival finds creative ways to convey this idea.
The heptapods’ writing is circular, more symmetrical and again, nonlinear to reflect their distinct perspective, tying into the motif that learning a language, in some measure, rewires your brain. Louise names her daughter Hannah, which the movie notes is a palindrome, reflecting the way this same symmetry and perspective has filtered down to her. And the film itself often frames Louise symmetrically, using a flat background or one-point perspective to balance the images on the screen.
But most notably, that mode of thought changes Louise’s perspective on life writ large, estranges her from her eventual husband, Donnelly, and motivates her to both marry him and have a child with him, knowing that each choice will end in pain. The cinch is that for Louise, these decisions do not “end.” They simply are. They exist on the same continuum of all moments, not greater or lesser in priority or order than the others.
And for that, for the gift given to her by the heptapods, she chooses the path that will increase the overall amount of bliss she might enjoy in her life, where she experiences love and is enriched by it. Adams’s understated performance gives life to this epiphany. Freed from constraints, in philosophy and temporal perspective, of having to fear loss and hardship, she pursues those paths that will make her life more worthwhile, that will give her more moments of happiness and wonder and fulfillment, regardless of any chronological path from joy to grief within them.
It’s a laudable message, one that applies even to we humble folks who still experience time chronologically. Much of cinema tackles ideas about coping with loss or valuing the good times even in the shadow of the bad. But the device of the scattered timescape of Louise’s life, seen as an accumulation of experiences and not a linear progression, drives that point home in unique ways. Much of Arrival is about broadening perspectives, and the scattered scenes combining what was, what is, and what will be, help to cast the same broadening spell on the audience that the heptapods cast on Louise.
That’s part of why talking about this film without talking about its ending is so hard. The way Arrival tells its story, the ways those moments are sequenced in the film, is so essential to what the film is trying to say that discussing it apart from that vantage point is unavoidably lacking. In a film about altering perspective, there is only so much to say without talking about how the picture attempts to shift the audience’s own perspective in the process. Arrival uses the alien and unfamiliar to tell a deeply humanistic story, about unity, philosophy, and worth, through one individual who comes to see them all very differently.