Arrival (2016) Director: Denis Villeneuve
Sometimes the science fiction genre feels tired, cliche, played out –but Arrival is a surprisingly fresh take on the alien invasion trope. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.
The plot is based on a 1998 short story by Chinese-American author, Jeff Chiang, entitled “The Story of Your Life.” In the film version, a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called up to investigate a bizarre situation. Several large alien spacecraft (massive “pods”) are hovering over disparate places on the earth and are displaying strange signs. As Banks studies the signs from her two aliens (affectionately named “Abbott and Costello,” we learn her backstory. She once had a daughter who died at a young age. She works alongside her counterpart, Ian Donnelly. Meanwhile, China misinterprets one of the alien symbols as a “weapon” rather than a “tool” or a “gift.” Armies mobilize into a hostile stance and the ships move slightly further away from the earth, and several soldiers secretly plant a bomb that injures one of Banks’s aliens. In despair, Banks travels alone to the ship and learns that their language is non-linear -it is a gift to humans allowing for ‘memories’ of events which have not yet transpired. In essence, it allows humans to foresee the future. Using this foresight, Banks returns to earth and prevents the Chinese from launching a war agains the aliens. She and Donnelly fall in love, despite the fact that she now knows they will have a daughter, she will die, and Donnelly will leave after her death. She must learn to see the future, and love her own fate (Nietzsche’s amor fati). Is it truly a gift from the aliens?
Arrival is a surprisingly powerful film. It inverts the War of the Worlds narrative. In this case, the aliens bring a gift, but humanity interprets it as a hostile act and begins war preparations. However, in the age-old debate between arms and letters, the latter wins out in the end of Arrival. The complex linguistics in this film are extraordinary, and the twist-ending is powerful. Language is essential to understanding the movie, as is the nature of grief. The tone of the whole film is bittersweet, mournful, even reflective. We spend most of the movie trying to understand the aliens, when in truth, we discover something more profound about ourselves in the end.