In the immediate aftermath of the election, interacting with art takes on a new significance. When we’re feeling betrayed, scared and confused, engaging with art, and movies in particular, becomes not just a way to escape, but a safe way to engage — an outlet to get our feelings out, or a way to receive reassurance and sympathy through story.
Arrival was in production only at the very beginning of the 2016 election season. The novella it’s based on, The Story of Your Life, is nearly two decades old. Yet Arrival fits its particular time perfectly.
Arrival tells the story of a huge global event, personalized through the experience of one character. Louise (Amy Adams) is a linguist and university professor who, we learn through a series of introductory scenes, has suffered an intense personal loss. When 12 strange alien ships appear at seemingly random spots across the globe, Louise is hired by the army — along with a physicist, Ian (Jeremy Renner) — to translate the interstellar visitors’ speech, communicate with them, and understand the purpose for their visit. Scenes of Louise at work are intercut with her memories, which influence her ability to understand the aliens, called Heptapods.
The film is a moody, cerebral journey, not an action-packed extravaganza. Director Denis Villeneuve smartly focuses more on emotion than exposition, revealing only as much as we absolutely need to know from moment to moment. It’s a puzzle of language and meaning that we solve along with Adams’ Louise. While this leads to a few moments of confusion later on in the plot, the level of intelligence and respect the film has for its audience is refreshing. Its moments of emotion (and there are whoppers) feel earned, not forced.
The Heptapods’ language is one that requires not just a different framework for grammar, sounds or syntax, but an entirely different way of perceiving the world and its rules. It’s a metaphor that applies to communicating with people from other parts of the world, or even within our own very divided country. True understanding and empathy, the film reminds us, comes when we not only comprehend the words others are saying to us, but the meaning attached to them, and the experiences and personal connection that comes with the words we choose. We can understand not only what others have to offer us, or their purpose, or their needs, but our purpose as well, and what we have to offer them.
There are many resonant themes in Arrival, all beautifully explored, and some that can’t be discussed without revealing a major plot twist. Many of these themes are timeless, from the emotions we feel in the face of unknown circumstances, to the importance of choosing communication and understanding over reactionary response, to considering the dual feelings of pain and joy that stem from the choices we make.
But all together, the film is an intricate, beautifully realized story reminding us that, especially at a moment of great clamor in our society, it’s important not just to talk, but to listen to each other — and not just to listen, but to listen with intentionality and compassion.