Best Picture Spotlight: ‘Arrival’

Editor Chloe Woods takes a spoiler-filled dive into Denis Villeneuve’s stunning sci-fi drama – which took home a BAFTA award last night and is now nominated for 8 Oscars.

If you have not yet seen Arrival, please be aware that 1) this piece is chock-a-block full of spoilers, 2) this piece won’t make much sense and 3) this piece strongly advises you to beg, borrow or otherwise obtain a copy of the film as soon as humanly possible.

The screen goes dark. The credits roll. As the lights come up people stretch, hunt for bags, and remember their half-finished popcorn by tripping over it. Two rows in front of me I hear this pronouncement:

‘The aliens had visited before.’ A middle-aged man, offering words of wisdom to a beffudled companion. ‘That’s why she’d already been having the visions.’

Normality, we might say, is restored.

You could make it up. You just wouldn’t want to. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival received its wide release in the USA two days after the election of Donald Trump: a demagogue who on first, second and all subsequent glances is the precise antithesis of everything Arrival says and appears to be trying to stand for.

This is what we call “timely”.

Arrival’s particular release date almost certainly fed into the rave around the film, since critics rarely fall into Trump-voting demographics, and at least passing mention of that timeliness made it into every review of the film I’ve seen. The comparison was generally kind to Arrival. The USA might be on a path to isolation, brutal populism, and social if not literal self-destruction (and Britain apparently determined to shackle itself to America’s star-spangled fate); but at least there is this film – this brave, clear-sighted, wonderful film – to show people a better way, just when it’s most needed. If films like this can be made, seen, nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars – surely the situation’s not all that dark?

This is what we call “optimism”.

How the hell are people supposed to learn from something they barely begin to understand?

(via Art of VFX)

The aliens had not visited before.

“Before” is a fluid concept for Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Time itself is perfectly linear, and – being part of time – so is Louise’s own life. It’s her perception of her life, and the passing of time, that decouples itself from simple forward motion over the course of the film. We see best how this works when Louise uses it to crucial effect in the telephone sequence: she looks ahead to gain information from a later point in time. From the presentation of the scene, she doesn’t simply observe her future self but is, in the moment, both at once. A life does not need to be experienced in order.

I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Before the heptapods, before the impossible ships, before the decipherment of an alien language, Louise Banks lived through highlights of her daughter’s birth, childhood, and death. If the future, why not the past? Why not show her younger self what is to come? (If she deliberately showed herself anything at all. Maybe some events simply echo through your life, spilling over into a time you didn’t know such things were possible. It’s not the aliens she sees, after all. It’s the important things.) Equal parts explanation and promise, the visions that haunt Louise through the film don’t mean anything extraordinary occurred before the heptapods’ arrival. They mean “before” no longer matters. They mean “beginning” no longer matters, and so never did. I used to think this was the beginning of your story – where? At birth? Louise knows better than that. In the dreams? The dreams both lead to and are the result of future events. This is the unbreakable loop of causality time travel so often traps us in. If the future is known, how can it be chosen?

The first obvious message of this film is: talk to each other.

There is a theory in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the words we use structure the way we see the world. Orwell was a fan of the concept. At its extremes it fails: our thinking shapes our words as much as our words shape our thinking, and in a sense we invent all the words we use. We may be able to judge what words like table and spoon mean to the people around us – but what about words like hope, or justice, or – tool?

Though it becomes harder when we speak different languages, the real difficulty arises when we must accommodate different ways of seeing the world. This is the case in Arrival, not only with the heptapods, but most strongly illustrated by them.

All conversations are an act of translation. Talk.

I would be extrapolating, if Villeneuve didn’t spell all this out quite clearly in the structure of the heptapods’ writing. And if the main character was not a linguist who could literally, liberally, spell it out.

The heptapods have never seen time as linear. They, like Louise, are capable of using that knowledge: all of their actions are based on an understanding of what they will meet on Earth, and what will happen afterwards.

Did you realise, watching the film, that Abbott must have embarked on this mission knowing it was going to die?

The second obvious message of this film is: trust each other.

Arrival has no villains. It does not even, really, have antagonists. The people who cause the film’s climactic conflicts are good people presented with the utmost of sympathy. They do not act out of greed or selfishness, and are to be found on all political “sides” – and because of their choices the world teeters on the brink of cataclysmic crisis.

The handful of military and national leaders who shut down the previously international effort to understand the heptapods do so motivated by genuine fear of others’ intentions. They have no evidence to support this fear. It is rooted in their own biases. People who want nothing more than not to be attacked will believe others wish to attack them.

Trust, the film says, that those others only wish to attack you because they believe you wish to attack them. That there would be no such wish if each saw the other’s desire driven only by mortal fear. That we do not, at the beginning, wish more harm than good on our fellow beings. And so trust.

(This is one point on which I truly wish I could believe Villeneuve was right.)

Time is not linear. It may not even exist.

Children ask, “Why can we see the past and not the future?” We can’t. If we could, the study of history would be simpler. We see the impressions left on us by a place we have passed through, and time itself consists of a series of moments. But this is the kind of philosophy real philosophers sneer at. Are we the same beings, from one now to the next? Or are we destroyed utterly in one second, to be recreated in the next?

“Beginning” and “ending” have no meaning. That’s why it’s not the promise of a full, long life that makes it worth living. We see that Louise’s daughter Hannah brings laughter to the world, and knows it. Does the pitiful end of her life discredit that? Do ours?

Because the less obvious message of this film is: live.

Some people have commented on what this film says about great revelations. The film says, they’ve argued, that most people when faced with world-shattering discoveries will quietly file them and return to worrying about everyday life. This is not untrue. Some have also interpreted Arrival to mean it would make no difference to us if we knew our own futures, because we would still be obliged to live them, and this, too, is not untrue.

All fiction is rooted in reality. Arrival can say these things because they are already real aspects of our own lives. We don’t know our futures, you say? Nonsense. We know that we will die. (All comments on immortality should be redirected, unless you’d like a lecture on the heat death of the Universe.) We know that, unless we are very exceptional, people we love will either die or be left to grieve for us. We know that, unless we are very exceptional, we will have people to love. There you are: your future, in its most critical points. But when we were small children we did not know this, and learned with horror of the inevitability of death – and, in most cases, returned to worrying about everyday life.

So this is nothing new.

But you must remember it. This is the point. Louise will not forget, now. Nobody in that world will forget the day the heptapods came or the gift they brought, even as book deals are signed and lectures dozed through. We live in our everyday lives, but we live poorly unless we carry our understanding with us. We can’t drop it when the credits roll and return to normality. Normality contains everything.

If this is time, then what of choice? This is the old difficulty of time travel: if we know our own futures, to what extent can we be said to choose them?

But we are still thinking linearly. We know the future because it is what we did choose. Even in the world of Arrival, alternatives can only be guessed at.

This is hard – there are no words for this.

Louise’s actions will not be the same as if she had no knowledge of the future. That factor cannot be removed. But they will be her actions, and create that future; and choices made in her future will affect her present. Don’t think of time unfolding: think of ripples in water spreading out to meet each other.

This is where the film departs from all sense of reality. We cannot see the world like that. But science fiction does not have to be possible.

We call it timely, and we do have reason.

In the months since this film was released, we have watched the country it was made in retreat further from the rest of the world. Commenters have made the obvious points, about communication, and trust, and the aching similarities of all living beings in their beautiful fragility and so their shared right to an unpersecuted existence. And etcetera. These are points, but I do not believe they are the point.

Don’t be afraid to live for fear of pain. Accept that you will suffer: you know enough of the future to understand that.

Trump’s supporters deny it. Not all those who voted for him, but the ones who bought into his message and continue to. Make America Great Again. Those who fear a future both known and unknown build walls to keep the world out, and hide from reality, and lash out at anyone or anything that poses the slightest risk. A country as much as a person can do that. This is what America is doing now.

Louise Banks had a daughter knowing she would lose her. Abbott came to Earth knowing it would die. Maybe that makes it easier – knowing the shape of things as well as the colour. Maybe it is easier to face difficult things if you have no alternative but to acknowledge them. Unlike them, we can forget our futures. We must strive not to. This is frightening; but ultimately, Villeneuve suggests, it is the way to achieve less pain. What would have happened if no heptapod had been willing to make the sacrifice Abbott did? The humans would never have noticed, but the heptapods’ society would have been forfeit.

Arrival is not only timely because it sends a message of tolerance. It is timely – at all times – because it challenges us to be braver in our very approach to the world.

I’m imposing myself on the film. I apologise. Maybe all I’ve read into it isn’t there; or maybe it’s there because it’s part of life, not because anyone intended, and you could see the same in any film. But I don’t think so.

Denis Villeneuve is working in the best tradition of sci-fi: visions of other worlds held up as a mirror to our own. Deceptive in its simplicity, this is not only a beautiful film, or a well-acted one, or a timely one, though it is all of those things. Arrival is important. And – being a non-blockbuster, a popular but still relatively niche work of science fiction – it will not be seen by nearly the number of people who should see it; nor, most likely, will many of them understand what it is trying to say. Important but, in the manner of many of the most important statements, liable to be forgotten.

We’ll never be able to quantify what effect it might have had.

But time will tell.

Arrival is still screening in select UK cinemas, and will be released on UK Digital HD services on March 6, followed by Blu-ray and DVD on March 20 (for the less patient, it’s out now on the U.S. iTunes store). See the trailer below:

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