This weekend, I saw Arrival (2016), starring Amy Adams, who I’ve loved since Julie & Julia (2009). Others have already written about this movie and its eerie prescience to this year’s election and global climate, so I won’t comment on that other than to say, echoing the young woman walking out of the theater ahead of us: “my mind is blown.”
I’ll start this review by discussing the end of the film rather than the beginning, which seems appropriate given the film and its approach to time. As the film draws to a close, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) saves the world by calling China and saying, in Mandarin so that the audience doesn’t understand, “In war, there are no winners, only widows.” This one phrase helps the Chinese president understand that his actions will not solve any issues, that his actions might just cause unnecessary pain and death. It’s important that the audience doesn’t understand what she said (unless you speak Mandarin), we know only that her WORDS provide the means of reconciliation that are needed and saves the planet from a completely unneeded conflict.
From the beginning of the film, words and their power are emphasized. This really is a movie that could be described as a meditation on language. When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), he’s reading from her book and reads a quote aloud: “language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” She seems mildly embarrassed and somewhat defensive about her own choice of words from this book; this moment, one that floats by almost unnoticed, but it provides the key to unravelling the mystery of the heptapods and their place here on Earth and, perhaps, our own purpose.
(This idea reminds me a quote I had hanging outside of my office door for years (from Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse): “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. / Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.” It is this idea — that language can be messy and hard and awful but that at the same time it can be beautiful and create empathy and solve problems — that anchors Louise. She never stops believing in the power of words and story, even when alternative answers seem to present themselves. This belief is key, and one that we all need to hang on to even harder than we have before.)
One of the big questions of the film has to do with story. If we know all that will happen to us in advance, what would we change? This isn’t a new question. Think of Hamlet and his nearly endless dithering, caused not by cowardice (despite what he says) but by consciousness. It is only when he decides that predestination (knowing the story in advance) matters less than being ready for the story to come that he can finally “let be.” This is exactly the reason Louise makes a conscious decision to have a child, even though that child will die from some sort of illness at a young age. Her knowledge of the future doesn’t stop her from appreciating the moment, the present, and the potential impact that the child has on the world. This may seem a controversial decision, but to me, it wasn’t. We can’t know what the world would have been like without her daughter; what we do know is that Louise’s love for her daughter is big enough that it helps her find the courage that she needs to break through the language barrier and actually communicate with the heptapods and with the Chinese president.
The other big question of the film is the one that Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) tells Louise to ask the heptapods and one that philosophers have been asking for eons: “What is your purpose on Earth?” The scene where she explains the linguistics of that question is another that may go by unnoticed, but it shouldn’t. As Louise works through the parts of the sentence, we are there with her and we should, I hope, begin to think about this question as it applies to ourselves. What is our purpose on Earth? Are we here as a short-lived part of the Earth’s history, destroying all that is around us, burning the world down because of fear? Or, are we here to learn, to communicate, to come together, and to grow? Since the heptapods are coming back in 3,000 years, it seems the latter. And that is hopeful and optimistic (link here to NPR’s Linda Holmes’s review about the optimism of the movie).
If you think of these pieces together (language as a weapon; the importance of story; the questioning of our purpose here on Earth), we see why she chooses to reach out and communicate, even at a point where there seems no reason to do so. She’s the one who understands that communication is commonly fraught with miscommunication. So, the heptapods may use a word like “weapon” when they actually mean something closer to “tool.” Again, that scene where she first meets Ian is important here. She knows that language itself can be used as a weapon. But that weapon doesn’t always have to lead to hurt; language can be used to soothe or to clarify. She knows that through the power of story, we can connect with each other. And through that connection, we can begin to realize the importance of love and have empathy for others.
Complex, thoughtful film. I’m not ready to say it’s one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time… yet. I am ready to say that I’ll be seeing this one again. And maybe again. And again.
If you watched this movie and loved it as much as I did, you might want to check out a few more things that inform the movie:
- A great TED explanation of how language can change the way we think
- Explanation of zero sum game
- Article about how reading literary fiction improves empathy
- Review that answers some questions you might have about Arrival