Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival opens with a beautiful montage of the life, and death, of the movie’s protagonist’s daughter. We are overcome within the first moments of the film with the feeling of pain from such a heavy loss, but also with the feeling joy from a life well lived. This montage shows us that with love comes hate, with life comes loss, and with happiness comes pain. We become completely aware of what it means to human.
Arrival transcends the sci-fi genre because it doesn’t ask the audience to understand what it means to be alien; it asks the audience to understand what it means to human. It asks the audience to connect with life, to experience tranquility, to suffer sadness. On the surface, Arrival is about learning how to cope with alien difference, but underneath it’s about learning to cope with our own humanity.
When the aliens arrive on Earth, humans struggle with their understanding of the creatures because they lack a common form of communication. Louise, the film’s protagonist, is tasked with trying to interpret and understand the language of these alien creatures. She spends months grueling over their unique typography trying to process and understand how these creature’s language. Because she knows the key to understanding why they are here and what they want and how they feel lies in language.
One of the central messages of Arrival is looking at how language determines the way we think. Much like us, the aliens use language in the same way they think; their thoughts are translated into a written form of communication. Yet, we learn that the alien’s language varies drastically from our own. The aliens don’t use language in a linear arch like we do. Instead, they use language non-linearly. The heptapods aren’t constrained by the laws of time. Through the use of language, they are able to see beyond themselves and their time. They are able to see how a decision made in the present will inevitably affect the future. Humans lack this ability because they are bound by linear time. Humans are trapped in time because their language, and thus thoughts, are forced on a linear trajectory.
When Louise is gifted with the ability to use the alien’s language, she is able to think and experience her world non-linearly. We come to understand that the flashes Louise is experiencing throughout the film are flashes of a life she has yet to live. She transcends nature’s boundaries. With this gift, she is also able to think and feel like the heptapods. The gift of their language gives her the gift to see a world disconnected from herself and a time separated from the present. With this gift, she can see the loss she’ll experience, but she can also see the joy she’ll feel. She is given the opportunity to change her future, to not suffer one of the greatest losses a parent can suffer. Yet, despite knowing she will have to eventually suffer the loss of her daughter, she still makes the decision to have a short, happy, fulfilling life with her. She chooses to experience the heartache, the laughter, the jubilation, the sorrow. Because she can’t separate herself from her humanity. The heptapod’s language allows her to see and understand the path her life will take, but her human urge is not to know, but to experience, to touch, to become overwhelmed with emotion. The heptapod’s language could never give her those sensations.
So, why is Arrival the savior of the sci-fi genre? Because it isn’t asking, “what if aliens arrived on Earth,” it’s asking “if you knew where your life would lead, would you still do it?” It’s not asking the audience to imagine a life living amongst aliens, but to imagine a life living with joy and sadness and pain and happiness. It’s asking the audience to imagine being alive. Through understanding these extraterrestrial visitors, Villeneuve is helping us to better understand ourselves.