When all hell breaks loose at the midpoint of ARRIVAL, we watch as nation after nation disconnects from one mass conference-call. What begins as a twelve panel grid of scientists and soldiers all working on a common problem soon turns into a field of red squares…each proclaiming that they are no longer interested in carrying-on a conversation.
It’s difficult to say if things getting worse led to the red squares, or the red square were what made things worse. What’s easy to say is those declarations that people have left the discussion are a pretty apt symbol for where we are at as a society.
As ARRIVAL begins, we meet Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). She is one of the leading experts in linguistics in America, and a deeply devoted mother to her only daughter, Hannah.
One day, twelve alien spacecraft suddenly appear above one dozen different nations around the Earth. They stand like sentries in twelve unrelated locations; clearly not hostile, but likewise not verifiably benign. Governments and militaries around the globe work feverishly to make sense of the appearance and intentions of the phenomenon…and where the Americans are concerned, Louise Banks is an asset to their efforts with the craft that appeared over rural Montana.
It’s the hope of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) that Louise can make sense of the visitors’ language, and perhaps find some sort of Rosetta Stone that will ease communication. Alongside her, Weber also tasks a theoretical physicist name Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in the hopes of decoding things quicker.
Banks and Donnelly are taken straight into the alien craft and put face-to-face with the alien beings. Only ever seen through a cloudy pane, the seven-limbed creatures are nicknamed “Abbott” and “Costello” by our heroes and only ever seem to offer smokey circles as gestures of communication. Talking with the aliens, it seems, will not be easy.
Eventually, Banks cracks the code and realizes that the variances in the smokey circles are the key to their meaning, and that the alien language isn’t spoken so much as it is written in these shapes. This allows America and the other eleven nations to slowly begin communication with the visitors.
It’s also what throws the whole world into chaos when one single alien message is translated by every affected country:
Like so many of the very best science fiction, ARRIVAL is less about the foreign presence, and more about how mankind reacts to the new world order. One could critique the film as two hours spent watching Louise and Ian stare at circles, and in many ways they would be right. There aren’t really any set pieces in this film, and very little narrative incline. No guns are fired, no spaceships crash, and no heads of state get up with a bullhorn and declare how today marks a new beginning for humanity.
That said, what we do watch unfold carries deep resonance about who we are, and what we learn when we stop to take stock.
For instance, there’s the device of the aliens language being a series of circles with only the tiniest variations. It’s an elegant way of exploring how we communicate, and how the smallest inflections can make a massive difference. It’s never fully explained, but then it doesn’t have to be. To suggest that we can learn something profound if we study something from all angles doesn’t require deep on-screen exploration. It understands that you, for instance, could tell the difference between me typing “I know who I am” and “I know who I am”.
So much of this story comes down to believing that Louise and Ian could find the fortitude to look closer. To examine every possibility even after many around them have stopped. It might be most elegantly expressed in a scene where Louise breaks apart a very simple question.
ARRIVAL says that its characters want to know of their visitors “What is your purpose on Earth?”. Simple question, right? Well, no, not really. There is a great amount of supposition contained in even those six words. Only those who have felt a calling to understand life down to the most intricate formula will realize this. So few of us think that way…which is why it’s fascinating to watch them work.
However, what makes ARRIVAL tragic is the way even the most pragmatic amoung us has difficulty facing the future. Perhaps it’s because it’s uncertain, or perhaps because it’s emotional. When one is used to dealing with mathematical certainties, wild variables can just feel like complete chaos.
However, one hopes that even in the face of a great uncertain future, that high minds like Louise and Ian could carry on. After all, they are the characters in this movie who become role models when listening in the hopes of understanding.
To listen – to really listen – is spectacularly hard. It requires setting aside impression, position, and any ideas of counter-statement. It can only thrive through true consideration, and a deep amount of patience. It requires being completely unconcerned with what is right, and instead being willing to realize what is true.
Let’s be honest: most of us do not have it in us. We aren’t interested in listening, we are only interested in waiting for our turn to speak.
ARRIVAL is about humanity and how we got where we are. It wants us to look in the mirror and confront ourselves over our inability and impatience when it comes to listening. It wants us to stop fearing the future – to truly consider what will happen next and not just bury our heads in the sand. All of these concepts are both freakishly difficult and tremendously terrifying…and that’s the point. The same way the sudden appearance of alien life and technology in our backyard is difficult and terrifying to consider, so too can a position that is not our own.
The only way forward – the only way any of us can survive – is to listen.