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Arrival – Movie Review – Why are they here?

Dennis Villeneuve is becoming more and more mainstream as time passes, which is exciting news for both Cinephiles and Moviegoers. If one were to judge his filmmaking style based on his previous films, one would not expect a Science Fiction film to pop as a future possibility. Having said that, it is more than pleasant to watch him do this film. Arrival is perhaps one of the best Science Fiction film made in recent times.

The film is based on a popular short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, crafted for screen by Eric Heisserer. The plot revolves around linguistic professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) who is assigned the task of interpreting the language of Alien visitors and understanding the purpose of their visit.

Arrival is such a refreshing take on the age-old Alien visiting Earth scenario. Not a scientist, but a linguist is called for help, to save the day. And she happens to be a WOMAN! Yes, Hollywood like many other institutions has had a notorious history when it comes to treatment of women. However, Dennis seems to be a part of the consciousness that actively celebrates women with most of his films having female leads. And since Arrival’s heart lies in a mother-daughter relationship, it makes Louise’s character all the more central to the story.

The mother-daughter relationship however is not as simply understood. The way the film opens one assumes the mother-daughter montage to be a past memory, and the grief of Louise losing her daughter seems to weigh down on her present condition. However, only later is it realized that this was a future memory completely redefining Louise’s character.

It’s quite an achievement to make a non-linear narrative tangible in the linear format of a film. Although this is not the first time this has happened. Filmmakers have been playing with time since the very beginning of film. This brings us to one of the ideas that this film deals with, Non-linear time. Like in film, the time that we perceive in real life is extremely linear, meaning it keeps moving forward. However, that’s a very classical understanding of time. Is time really that simple? Can it not pause, stop, move backwards or jump forward? Such ideas have been a staple diet for science fiction writers. And Arrival seems to have a take of it’s own.

Similarly, the idea of intelligent life existing outside our solar system has fascinated many throughout the years. And such fascination has most colorfully translated into various pieces of art. And why must it not? It’s the same kind of curiosity, which resulted in various real life inventions.

It is not just “the apple falling on Newton’s head” scenario but many real life scientific inventions have in fact been inspired by science fiction. Take the Rocket for example. Robert H Goddard who successfully built and launched the first liquid-fueled rocket was immensely influenced by HG Wells’ classic novel about a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds. At the age of 16, when he first read the book, he was so moved that he decided to pursue spaceflight as a real life possibility. Science fiction and real world science are not as mutually exclusive as one might think.

So what real science possibilities does Arrival bring forward?

No one knows, that only time (whatever that is) will tell.

Keeping the future possibilities aside, the film currently has a lot to offer from the use of language to visual representation of alien life.The language used by Heptapods is non-linear; having no directions, essentially making it free of time. This further raises a thought that maybe this is how the Heptapods think too, free of the linear human logic. That can be taken as a very interesting comment on our culture of thinking which is based on cause and effect, the very foundation of human logic. This thought is mirrored in dialogues such as “Language is the foundation of a civilization” or “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict”.

As the film progresses, the humans start to learn their language moving the film into its final act. It is understood that the Heptapods want to ‘offer weapon’ which causes immediate mass panic and hysteria. However, Louise points out that weapon might not have the same meaning as it does for humans. Heptapods might not even realise the difference between a weapon and a tool. Here’s another example of the beautiful ideas that his film is full of and how effortlessly it portrays it. Such ideas are an example of good storytelling, which provokes deep thought rather than serving the audience with all the answers. Arrival like many of Dennis’s other films is full of such moments.

Coming to the visual representation, one of the things that stand out is the atmosphere inside the spaceship. It is not just the sudden change in gravity, which is absolutely awe-inspiring but the water-like composition of the atmosphere. This is observed towards the end when Louise voluntarily enters the capsule that takes her inside the spaceship. The bright white lights and mist is very reminiscent of a dream sequence. However looking at Louise’s hair float and seeing a Heptapod fly past it is safe to assume that such an environment is not alike our human atmosphere. It’s much similar to the underwater environment, which could have been the real inspiration behind this setting. The mist, which is present throughout the spaceship adds to the character of the Heptapods making them more curious looking.

The film builds up on you slowly. It’s not just a one-time affair. It leaves you with a lot of curious thoughts. As the film closes, towards the end it even brings up the paradox of non-linear time. Louise has a lapse of the future memory where she meets General Shang. In the future however she does not remember her past, which is the film present. It seems that only in her future is she realizing the past memory. Maybe, that is the true nature of non-linear time. One might have access to the future and the past but one in no way could influence it. And that is perhaps why the Heptapods arrived in the first place.