Arrival starts with a spoiler. You don’t realise it’s a spoiler until the closing scenes of the movie, but rather than the ‘flashback’ it appears when linguistics lecturer Louise Banks loses he young daughter to terminal illness, it’s the end of the movie. As Louise’s voiceover says, ‘Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did.’
We all die in the end of our lives. We all know it but there’s nothing we can do about it. The shock is to see this major theme emerge so explicitly from a mainstream science fiction movie.
Is Arrival really science fiction? It’s the non-linear narrative that makes this film stranger and more fascinating than the extraterrestrial heptapods Louise is tasked to communicate with. We encounter these creatures from Louise’s point-of-view as she tries to understand their otherworldly language.
She realises their language and viewpoint is non-linear and, as a linguist, begins to understand that one of the main limitations of most ‘human’ language is that it’s linear and so limits our thinking. Our language imprisons and constrains us.
Based on the short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, movie breaks out of the usual genre constraints to focus on the human elements of the narrative and engage us in a non-linear way. This really didn’t have to be a work of science fiction at all, but perhaps the message is more powerful by being more mainstream, more universally accessible.
Perhaps the weakness of the film is the fact that the extraterrestrials are given so much of attention. If ten alien craft descended on earth it would cause a global crisis, but not showing the aliens might have been an even more powerful and thought-provoking movie.
‘The future has already happened,’ is Ted Chiang’s theme and understanding a new form of language could help make you realise there’s no difference between past and future. At a fundamental physical level there isn’t a difference between past and present. This is also echoed on screen as Louise changes from being a person who carries a rolled-up umbrella even on the walk from her car to her lecture theatre, to completely removing her hazmat suit and recklessly risking infection.
Despite knowing the journey of her life and where it leads, she embraces it. This is the heroic choice made by Louise as played by Amy Adams. ‘Do you choose love even if it results in loss?’ She embraces every moment. Like a true science fiction hero.