Arrival is a methodical, melancholic, heady anti-war picture unconcerned with giving us answers. We’re forced to form our own questions and come to our own realizations. For a film obsessed with time and the threat of not having much of it, Arrival stands in the face of urgency and takes a deep breath. While the film deeply inhales and exhales, we get an intoxicating personal and emotional character study.
Time is said to be our most valuable asset. As our lives become increasingly busy, the dream of having more time to do what we want, or what we love, is hard to resist. You could say time is always playing against us, acting as our silent archenemy: Never enough time with loved ones, never enough time to pursue passions, never enough time with our kids before they grow up. In Arrival, time takes on many shapes and forms. Time is represented by Louise’s child who ran out of it. By a marriage that wasn’t given enough of it. By the world who refuses to be patient and panics more by the second. By the news media demanding more and more and never taking its foot off the pedal. By those easily-influenced and filled with aggression. By those in the military not understanding the complexity it takes to communicate with others. Even by the allotted time slots the team can briefly access the alien ship and communicate with the Heptapods (the aliens).
Proper communication and emotional connection are at constant odds with time and thus, end up being the heroes of this film. From the very beginning, after we learn of Louise’s loss and how grief-stricken she is, we want her to reach out to someone, or someone to her. But that connection never happens, or at least, not with who we suspect it will. She immediately appears as a brick wall who has dealt with the unthinkable. Louise’s loss is the internal, emotional story at play here. What’s oddly striking is how the story really has no desire for Louise to connect with anyone else. She, like the aliens, seems unapproachable at first. Her journey to self-discovery, is a journey the audience takes right along side of her. And little by little we start to see how her self-discovery can ultimately defeat time.
The external story is Louise, an expert linguist, being tapped to retrieve answers from two aliens inside one of twelve ships that have landed across the globe. It’s no accident this spacecraft happens to land in the middle of Montana, as far away as possible from the busy lifestyle our society embraces. Contrast that with what seems like every other alien invasion movie (Independence Day, Cloverfield, Mars Attacks!, Battle: Los Angeles, Transformers, War of the Worlds, etc.) that focuses on our planet’s most densely populated areas.
Louise somehow balances the complexities of deciphering the alien language while holding off mounting pressure from government authorities to increase aggressive communication. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) resists the urge to up the tension by using go-to action film tricks such as choppy editing, incessant tracking shots or fast-paced dialogue to artificially enhance whatever stakes there may or may not be. Instead, he lets the chaos fade to the background and allows the camera to linger on Louise. It’s a bold and powerful move to give this film to Amy Adams. The film leans heavily on her ability to single-handedly carry the emotional weight. It’s her story through and through and, in the hands of a less capable actor, would have fallen apart. Much like Louise strips herself of her hazmat suit so the Heptapods can fully see and understand her, the film focuses our attention to her eyes, because therein lies the story. It lies in her transformation as the Heptapods pass their “weapon”, their tool, on to her.
There is no twist ending. Because there is no ending. As there is no beginning. By the end of the film, we no longer see Louise’s story ending or beginning, but rather, just as it is. Her identity isn’t defined by this story or her daughter’s story. Just as we’re introduced to Louise, we assume her story may be straight forward. But we’re writing our preconceptions with one hand, not two. To understand Louise, is to understand the complete circle, much like the aliens’ written language. This is why the ending of Arrival is so gut-wrenchingly satisfying. We see both pain and joy. We see her choice to embrace her life despite knowing its outcome. By the end, the film has passed this concept onto its viewer–Everyone in the audience thinking about their lives not linearly, but as one cohesive unit. Even if we live through memories or dreams of our futures, we start to connect with what Louise is feeling. We feel at peace because for once, she isn’t restricted by time. She has set herself free. And we leave the theatre feeling as if we truly know her.