We saw the trailer for Arrival. It looked promising although, if I was being completely honest, I wasn’t exactly certain what I was getting after watching it. I mean, it’s aliens right? Aliens usually entail the human race trying to kill them or them trying to kill the humans at one point or another. Yet, looking at this trailer, I really didn’t know. That intrigued me though. I didn’t want to watch the same alien movie I’d seen before. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I did.
PSA: The following contains some spoilers.
Lets Set the Stage
12 UFOs have “landed” on earth in spots that don’t make any strategic sense, each residing in different countries. The doors to each craft only open every 18 hours. They don’t have to break in or do anything special, the doors slide open and in the humans go. Inside they were to learn more about the aliens to ascertain whether or not they were a threat and why they arrived. Louise, a linguistic professor, is recruited by the U.S. government to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. So far, no one in any of the 12 countries has figured out how to speak with them.
When the movie begins, we see Louise go through several stages of life with her daughter until, eventually, the girl prematurely dies. Watching just the first few minutes alone is heartbreaking, and I was already choked up. Louise lives simply and alone. The immediate impression of the film after the first few minutes is how alone she is. Once she makes it to the military base set up near the UFO, she is put to work and shortly enters the spacecraft.
What must it be like to see an alien? Whether it’s hostile or friendly, Arrival tells us that it must be terrifying. Our characters leave their first interaction utterly terrified and overwhelmed. Their work has begun though and they start to try to decode the sounds they heard and recorded while they were up there. Sitting in the theater, I was wondering how in the world they planned on explaining how they were going to be able to decipher between sounds that, quite frankly, sounded about as coherent as a bunch of lions roaring. As it turns out, they didn’t.
Louise decides to bring a visual aid into the space craft with her and makes the first breakthrough. The aliens communicate through a written, symbolic language. Still, because they use symbols, she has the task of breaking down the symbols to learn the meaning behind them. As this goes on though, Louise suffers from assumed flashbacks of her daughter. They aren’t just flitting thoughts and memories though. Whenever these memories arrive, Louise is essentially paralyzed and unable to do much of anything else, which is odd to say the least. Each memory is important, but it isn’t until the end that things start coming together. Now, I will admit, I was pretty certain I’d figured out these memories when the movie had 40 minutes or so left, but this didn’t take away from the big reveal.
Arrival gives us a look at how we as humans fear things we don’t understand, and how that fear can be harmful. Louise’s job is hindered by the fear of those who recruited her and their boss’s fear as well. Unlike others though, Louise works through her initial fear of the aliens to solve the mystery of why they came. By the end, she is doing all she can to reason with everyone else. But her experience shows us that when people are unwilling to listen and allow their fear to control them, that it’s virtually impossible to reason logically. Her superiors are so focused on what other countries are doing, they are making mistakes.
With this look at a fear of otherness, we also get to see that in the end Louise is in a sort of awe. She seems to find the aliens’ language breathtaking and beautiful in its own unique way. She works to defend them and calls out her superiors when they make assumptions based on “what ifs” instead of facts. You can’t help but know, that she wanted them to stay so she could learn more about them.
As far as pacing goes, Arrival is slow. It’s intriguing but it’s about watching Louise learn a language and what she learns through that language. And I’m talking beyond why the aliens came. She learns more about her life and herself. It didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat. It didn’t bore me either though. When I say it’s slow, I’m not saying that it’s boring. It’s just not the alien movie you probably expect or are use to seeing. Do you need to see it in theaters? I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of money, but you’re not missing anything if you wait until it hits Redbox.