This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.
ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.
The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.
Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.
But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.