I thought that I would have at least a few more years before having serious anxiety about the fact that I will one day die. Yet the slow boring creep of dull joint pain, the growing habit of falling asleep during inert movies (a new, deep shame of mine), and the overall hardening of already-narrow physical limits are really starting to nag me about my own mortality. To this list of depressing reminders, I can add Arrival, an alien-invasion movie that has the gall to make you confront our slow slinking towards nothingness.
While death drove Dylan Thomas into a futile rage, made all the fools and idiots on life’s stage visible to Macbeth and King Lear, and added an existentialist flair to Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse farts in Swiss Army Man, it serves a totally different function in Arrival – namely, death shows us that the brevity of our lives is as beautiful as it is painful. And Arrival doesn’t do this with any philosophical grandstanding. Instead, the film tells, with vivid intimacy, the story of one woman’s search for love and meaning amid pain and loss.
That woman is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist that is recruited by the American military to decipher the language of aliens (giant seven-limbed mollusks called ‘heptapods’) that have just landed in ships that have the imposing simplicity of 2001’s monolith. Joined by the tenacious physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks seeks to understand the complex whale-type noises and intricate circular symbols made by the faceless arrivals. It almost goes without saying that these sentient squids strain the relationships amongst the already-capricious nations of our planet – predictably, the real conflict is between national agendas, not species.
However, Arrival’s power comes from its resolute grounding of this apocalyptic conceit and massive scale in Louise’s personal life. We learn, early on, that she has suffered the unimaginable: the death of her child. And this is where director Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic discipline crafts an intimate exploration of loss from an alien invasion story – the camera rarely leaves Louise’s side, so every moment of the plot, from exhilarating breakthroughs to terrifying and devastating conflicts, becomes profoundly tangible. We see, through Louise’s eyes, how an attempt to communicate with aliens can be the means through which you learn to live without your child.
This emotional resonance seeps into every facet of Arrival – the film’s dominant motif is that of the circle (or cycle), which can be seen in the constant return to the same moments of elation and fear, the same scenes of loss, and the same images of hope and love. Yet even though this pattern structures the overall film, it remains rooted in Louise: when she gives birth, she lovingly, lightly whispers “come back to me” as she holds her daughter for the first time. Later, holding her daughter’s pale, cold hand, she whispers that same phrase: “come back to me.” We watch this unfold, haunted by the ache we hear in Louise’s voice because we understand the love that is hurting there.
Villeneuve’s dedication to this intimacy is also what makes the aliens in Arrival such an effective foil for the human species. Indecipherable (at least initially), visually symmetrical and decidedly non-human, Arrival’s extraterrestrial presence is the backdrop against which human characters come to terms with their mortality. Like all alien movies worth seeing (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Attack the Block, They Live and even The Iron Giant all come to mind), the aliens themselves serve to exert the existential pressure that forces characters to explore what it means to be human. And like the best of these films, Arrival prevents this exploration from becoming abstract by crafting a deep empathy for its central character. We come to understand the universality of suffering not because we witness the destruction of cities and nations, but because we see a woman refuse to let go of her daughter’s limp, lifeless hand.
And while there is an endless list of fascinating ideas being explored in Arrival, what stays with you is Louise’s painful, beautiful acceptance of loss as a condition of love. Leaving the theater, I wasn’t parsing the film’s use of chronology, physics or language – instead, I was reminded of Viktor Frankl’s simple distinction between happiness and meaning: happiness focuses on satisfying desire, but meaning comes from serving something beyond you. Meaning, Frankl writes, gives you the ‘why’ of your existence, which means that you “will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” This is what makes Louise’s story beautiful: she can only suffer because she chose to love deeply.
Through its assured direction, impeccably-tuned performances, and disciplined storytelling, Arrival is a beautiful reminder of the lesson that we learn throughout our lives, the lesson that continues to echo throughout all our stories: our suffering is the mark and metric of our humanity precisely because it is a consequence, and affirmation, of our capacity to love.