This review contains mild spoilers for the science fiction film Arrival.
Occasionally, once every blue moon or so, a film will come along that—whether intentionally or not—reflects the struggles of its time. Such is the case with Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama, Arrival, a film that feels more relevant than ever in our increasingly divided and polarized society.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is an accomplished linguist and linguistics professor who, as we see in the film’s opening sequence, struggles with the death of her daughter after a long battle with cancer. When Louise shows up to teach class one morning, she arrives to find a nearly empty lecture hall and soon learns the reason why: twelve mysterious vessels of unknown origin have appeared across the globe, seemingly out of nowhere, and no one knows why the aliens are here or what they want. The U.S. Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) contacts Louise and she soon finds herself caught-up—along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner)—in a multinational endeavor to translate the aliens’ language in order to establish communications with them and discover the purpose behind their visit.
While communications between humans and the “heptapods” (as they come to be known, thanks to their seven-limbed, squid-like appearance) start off a bit rocky, Ian and Louise are eventually able to decipher some of the heptapods’ written symbols and from there progress truly begins. It doesn’t last long, however, as Chinese military forces begin to approach the extraterrestrials with increasing hostility and communications between the world’s major nations begin to break down. From here, Louise and Ian must race against the clock to learn the aliens’ true intentions before international tensions escalate to the point of war.
While Arrival often feels like a linguistics lesson in its own right, what this film is really about is unity. As international tensions escalate, one almost expects the aliens themselves to step into that old sci-fi cliché of benefactor and say “Hey! Enough is enough!” But in this film, as in life, nothing is ever that simple. While the heptapods are more advanced than humanity, they are not gods. Though they offer humanity a gift—a tool we can use to bring the species together—they are not saviors or messiahs; no miracle or grandiose cosmic solution will descend from the heavens to save humanity. Instead, it’s up to humanity to save itself from itself.
In a sense, Arrival is really nothing more than an elaborate question wrapped up in the guise of a science fiction flick. In the face of adversity, can humanity overcome its aggression, its prejudice, its xenophobia, its cowardice? In the end, Arrival offers an optimistic answer to that question, as movies usually do. But even after the screen has faded to black and the credits have all but finished their roll, there’s still a sort of weightiness in the air, as if the film—having offered its own answer in regard to the fictional world these characters inhabit—is also subtly asking those of us in the real world the same question.
We need only take a look at all the sources of division in the news (ISIS, mass shootings, the presidential election) to see that our species is far from a unified one. Perhaps it’s time we take a step back, look in the mirror, and ask ourselves the same question. As Arrival indicates, whether or not aliens really exist, it seems no salvation is coming from the sky.