In some ways, Arrival feels like a character study. It follows a linguist and college professor named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is called upon by the U.S. military to help contact one of twelve alien pods (“shells”) that have arrived in various parts of the world.
It’s a grand film both visually and in terms of scope. We’re dealing not only with the entire world here, but also with questions about life way out there in the deepest parts of the universe. At the same time, though, we only follow Louise. We see what she sees, and we learn what she learns until we reach a point at which even Louise is ahead of the audience.
The film begins with a tragic (yet at this point almost cliche) sequence of Louise welcoming her daughter Hannah into the world. Then we watch Hannah grow up, through the good times and the not so good times, until as a teenager she gets sick and passes away. It’s like director Denis Villeneuve watched Up on repeat and tried his best impression of that tear-jerking opening montage.
I say almost cliche, because it kinds of works. It’s short enough so as no to be too indulgent, and whenever you throw a curveball in there (like the daughter screaming “I hate you” at the camera right after saying “I love you” in a different shot), it helps the scene feel a little richer.
Next we follow Louise as she goes to work, teaching a college class on linguistics. Everything about her life seems cold and a little isolated. Her class is a large lecture hall, but it’s mostly empty due to the mysterious arrival of the twelve alien shells. At this point Louise and her remaining students are not aware of the problem, but within a few seconds they learn about the event.
Even though we know that Louise’s classes aren’t always that empty, it still helps set the tone. Her life feels very lonely.
The campus is in full panic mode as is the rest of the world when Louise leaves to go home. Once she arrives at home, however, everything is back to complete silence. She lives in a nice house deep in the woods, overlooking the water, and it might as well be hours away from any civilization. Whatever happens in the real world, it doesn’t feel like it’ll touch her there.
The next day she returns to the campus to teach her class, but of course no one is there. While everyone panics, she remains strikingly calm and unaffected. I got the impression that while this means she is steady and unwavering in the face of danger or anguish, she is also similarly insulated from joy and common social practices. It’s easy to think that this is probably because of the pain of losing a child.
Soon a few higher-ups in the U.S. Military come to take her to Montana, the location of the lone U.S. alien shell. They want her to try to translate the alien messages, a tall order considering there is hardly any information to go off of, and the aliens speak a language no human has ever encountered.
While there she meets Ian (Jeremy Renner) who was just brought on like her, but he handles theoretical physics. They become close as they work together to decipher the alien language and to understand how they work.
In their first visit, Louise and Ian are reasonably petrified. They are lifted up into the alien shell which has its own gravity. Inside a dark room that might as well be a movie theater, they encounter a glass window that looks into a room of… white. Soon a couple squid-like aliens show up and are pretty calm. They communicate by shooting ink out of their tentacles that form a circle on the glass.
Through more and more visits, Louise and Ian learn their language and teach them English, trying to communicate on a most basic level. The purpose is to determine what the aliens’ purpose is for arriving on earth.
Louise and Ian name the two aliens with which they communicate Abbott and Costello. They develop a rhythm with them, and using photos of the aliens’ symbols, they develop a repository of words and concepts in the aliens’ language. Each one is a circle but with different features around that circle.
The conflict escalates when other countries don’t know what to do with the aliens pods. China threatens war, and other countries appear ready to follow their lead. In one scene, U.S. soldiers attempt to detonate a bomb inside the alien shell, but Abbott is able to knock it loose, but in the process Costello is killed.
So humans are causing the big problems. Through all this, Louise is learning the alien language more and more. She continues having dreams and visions of her daughter through various points in the daughter’s life, and we later learn that this is because she is beginning to think in the alien language in which everything has already happened and is also yet to happen. In other words, it’s not linear. It is later revealed that Louise’s daughter has not yet been born, and that everything she envisioned is a flash forward rather than a flashback.
As tensions escalate between countries (and they cut off international communication), Louise is able to call Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma), and convince him not to bomb the alien pod.
She calls him on his private number, and she is only able to do this when her conscience is, essentially, teleported into her future self at a gala celebrating all the countries coming together and cooperating. General Shang thanks her for convincing him not to shoot nuclear weapons at the pod. She is clearly confused and can’t remember doing so. It’s at this point that what was the present (the mission to understand the alien arrival) has become the past, and the present is now post-alien arrival, when everyone has settled down. She needs General Shang to tell her in that moment what she said so her past self can remember and then tell it to him. She says something along the lines of “war makes no winners, only widows,” and this deeply affects the General who has already lost a wife.
It’s not time travel so much as Louise is able to recall the past and future equally, thus thinking in the alien language. The aliens have always been able to communicate this way, and they, it turns out, arrived on earth in order to try to force the countries to work together. It is because 3,000 years from now, the aliens will need the humans’ help, but we don’t know why.
It also adds another ripple, revealing that Costello knew he was going to die in the earlier explosion and yet took the sacrifice anyway.
In the end, Louise and Ian get together, and Louise decides to have a child, knowing all the while how it will end.
So yeah, it feels like a character study because it’s about this character struggling to cope with feelings she can’t fully comprehend as well as literal aliens that no one can comprehend. In the end she develops a new perspective on the world and the idea of predestination. It becomes about her learning a new language and a new way of seeing the world.
I enjoyed the way the flashbacks/flash forwards of Louise’s daughter became increasingly relevant to the plot. It’s a trope in movies to have the main character remember some awful tragedy that affects them deeply and helps the audience empathize with them. But in Arrival, it really is something Louise is struggling to deal with, because as these visions happen, she doesn’t know what they mean or what to do with them.
Also, I have no idea where I read this or heard this, but someone described the film Arrival as seeing the world the way you see a movie you’ve already watched. Or it’s also the way the writer and director see the movie because they’re working in the story’s present, yet they know where it’s going to go. If you rewatch the movie, you’ll basically be watching it from the aliens’ perspective. I don’t know of many movies that add an extra layer to the viewing experience like that upon rematch. Memento is a great re-watch movie for a similar reason, but when you re-watch that movie, you’re not viewing it from a new character’s perspective, or maybe it is, it’s basically just Leonard’s perspective if he didn’t have memory loss.
Oh yeah, this is where I read that thing about Arrival as a re-watch movie: https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueFilm/comments/5cio2j/arrival_and_the_language_of_the_director_spoilers/