"Mysterious Linguistic Circles"
What You Need To Know:
ARRIVAL is a subtle movie that at its heart is about Louise versus herself, dealing with the foreshadowing of grief and her own alienation. Death is also a theme undergirding the whole movie. Even though the movie reveals the story’s ending from the beginning, the movie still captivates. ARRIVAL has very little foul language or violence and no lewd content. It’s an extremely intellectual movie. MOVIEGUIDE® advises strong caution for ARRIVAL’s eclectic, dubious worldview that, despite some positive moral elements, dismisses the hope of eternal life with Jesus Christ.
(PaPa, H, BB, PP, AbAb, ACAC, anti-EE, L, V, A, M) Eclectic, New Physics, prescient worldview with a circular view of history and time which could have its roots in the i-Cheng, but the only reference to Chinese philosophy is the heroine talking about Mah Jong being used to decode an alien language, mixed with some strong moral elements, including commitment to a dying daughter with a very rare disease, compassion for neighbor, positive view of military with some bad military people, positive view of childbirth, strong attempt to communicate with an alien culture in a spirit of goodwill and hospitality, but not reflecting a politically correct worldview about immigration and multiculturalism, and several quick exposes of popular political and religious beliefs, including a TV announcement that a Pentecostal church burns the people and building because the aliens are a sign of the end times, a refutation by the newscaster of radical environmentalists that the government is letting us open to tremendous disease by letting the aliens stay and the communist reaction to shoot first and ask questions later, as well as a very light one-world viewpoint; four obscenities and one light profanity; light action violence including bomb goes off but aliens protect scientists, shooting in the background, threats of warfare, descriptions of looting, and daughter dies; positive romance but no sex; no nudity; minor alcohol use; no smoking or drugs; and, mega shots to prevent infection, prescient visions of the future, contact with aliens expands consciousness, lying to get a job, lying to protect aliens, and constant themes of death including aliens look like grim reapers.
ARRIVAL is a very well made, beautifully crafted science fiction movie about coming into contact with aliens who give humans the gift of a new language. Underneath ARRIVAL’s problematic science fiction story is a deeper, poignant story of love, death and grieving.
The movie opens with Louise Banks talking about the birth of her daughter, Hannah, and asking if this is the beginning or the end of the story. The movie shows Hannah growing up with Louise after the father has left, and Hannah’s ultimate death from an incurable rare disease in her twenties.
Then the cut cuts to Louise going to teach her course in linguistics at a university in the Pacific Northwest as 12 alien ships land on Planet Earth. The class is dismissed, and fear as well as curiosity sweep the planet. Suddenly, a colonel and his aide come into Louise’s office to recruit her and her linguistic skills to try to decipher what the aliens are saying. Louise had top security clearance a couple years before because of her translating Farsi in the Iraq War. She says she can’t decode the alien language based on an audio recording but must go to Montana where one of the spaceships landed. In reply, Col. Weber says he’ll have top go to her chief linguistic rival at Berkeley instead. Louise gives a Weber a linguistic question to ask her rival, which the audience later discovers is a red herring.
Soon thereafter, Weber returns and takes her to Montana. There, she’s teamed up with a physicist, Ian, to communicate with the aliens. They and some military assistants don Hazmat suits to enter the alien craft during the brief intervals when the aliens open the door. Once inside the craft, gravity, time and space change radically.
Inside, they try to communicate with the aliens through a glass barrier. Louise has some tremendous breakthroughs, so the government is anxious to move faster. She convinces Col. Weber not to rush the process by telling him a fictitious story about the famous explorer Capt. Cook’s team meeting the first aborigines and asking them what the name of the animal that we call the kangaroo was. To achieve her goals, Louise lies three times in the movie. Even so, she makes great progress decoding the alien language. As she does so, she starts to get visions of her daughter. The explanation is what is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you learn or speak can actually change you and determine how you perceive the world. Learning the alien language gives Louise prescient abilities, such a being able to see the future.
Eventually, everyone concludes the aliens are saying “weapon” to Louise and humanity. The Chinese, the Russians and the Pakistanis decide to blow up the aliens into oblivion. Louise takes a tremendous risk to enter the alien atmosphere to find out the real meaning of the alien word and message. In the process, she discovers more about the aliens, more about herself and more about the future.
ARRIVAL is a subtle movie that at its heart is about Louise versus herself, dealing with the foreshadowing of grief and her own alienation. There are several potential antagonists in the movie, but they all turn out to be just misguided or misinterpreted. To achieve this fine balance of creating jeopardy in a world without villains demonstrates great direction and great acting. Even though we know the story’s end from the beginning, the movie still captivates.
At one point when the aliens land, there are several quick exposes of popular political and religious beliefs: the first is a TV announcer that a Pentecostal church saw the aliens as a sign of the end times, so they burn themselves and their church; The second is a refutation by the newscaster of radical environmentalists who complain that the government open people up to tremendous disease by letting the aliens stay; the third is the communist government of China’s reaction to shoot first and ask questions later; as well as several other quick, sarcastic newscast salvos to dismiss other worldviews. The movie does suggest the aliens are trying to help us become a one-world government, and some of the discoveries about the aliens reflect the novel CHILDHOOD’S END, but never go as far as that novel in establishing a new world order.
The key to understanding this movie is the dialogue between Louise and her daughter, Hannah, about Daddy leaving. Louise says she was responsible because she told him something he wasn’t ready to hear. The daughter says Daddy never looks at me the same way any more. Thus, the dialogue reveals that Louise can see the end from the beginning.
In a very subtle way, the movie is very melancholy and could be seen as a process of grieving. The movie’s science fiction aspect, like LIFE OF PI, posits an Eastern view of reality where the future can be known and life is circular or cyclical and not linear. However, movies are linear, and the prescience in the movie can’t see beyond the finite, which is death itself. Death is a theme undergirding the whole movie: the loss of Louise’s daughter, the death of her marriage and even the death of one of the aliens. Even the aliens themselves reflect this theme by suggesting the finitude of life. That said, the movie’s metaphysics of cyclical prescience does not hold up to the reality of storytelling and the reality of the world.
ARRIVAL has very little foul language, very little violence (which is mostly off screen) and no sex, but there’s a lot of romance between Louise and Ian. It’s an extremely intellectual movie. The strong caution is not for ARRIVAL’s linguistic or semantic elements, but for an eclectic worldview that, despite some positive moral elements, seems to foreclose the hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God with Jesus Christ.