Arrival opens with a life. Or at least a life in images.
We see as Louise Banks (Amy Adams) holds her daughter for the first time, plays with her in the yard and eventually watch as the young girl passes away. All the while, she seems to be looking down when her face is away from the action in front of her.
Is she struggling to connect? I asked myself in the theater as I noticed the reserved looks turn into detached inhabitance as we catch up with her at the present day as a college professor in linguistics.
It’s funny that my first thought was her struggling to connect with life in front of her, which is the central question to the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, as he — and writer Eric Heisserer — question the nature of human connection, time and how the two try to work harmoniously in our lives.
Louise is in class when the alarm goes off, signaling her call-to-action. Aliens have come to Earth and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) wants Louise to join him in helping to decode what they are saying. On the flight to the base, she is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician also tasked at decoding what these lifeforms want from Earth and whether or not they contain arithmetical skills.
Arrival is about human connection, and at the heart of that is the idea of empathy towards others. As the film progresses, it seems more apparent that we are being shown the tragedy of life That death haunts us and its inescapable grasp keeps us from living fulfilled.
But I would like to counter and say that Arrival shows us the gift of life — that its uncertainty is what makes it so worth living; that not knowing what stands before us makes it much more meaningful.
I think what strikes us most about Arrival is how it makes us think about time. Is it something we engage in or just a constantly progressing notion that we take no notice of?
For Louise, it begins as the second definition. Glossing over her as she attempts to take part in what the others are her are doing. The film begs the question: what is your purpose on Earth? The question is posed for the aliens, but it can also work for the viewer. Are we here just to live? Or do we want to live?
The distinction is where Arrival thrives.
In the opening scene, Louise narrates over the scenes from her life and Villeneuve focuses on the window of her room, which features a sturdy, dark beam that separates two sides with open space in the middle. In the opening narration, Louise describes life as having beginnings and endings before cutting to the present day, which seems to be much more undefined than before.
Those beginnings and endings included jubilance and heartbreak — as we witnessed in the opening sequence — and it seems like at this point, Louise is much more unclear in what point of her life she is in.
Villeneuve seems to be returning to this window — separating into three points with the middle point also being the smallest — as Louise seems to structure her own life in the same way. She thinks that she is living in the last box — the end of her life — but her work with the alien language reveals this new idea that life is this broken concept worth pursuing, and she has yet to reach the valley of it.
This is where Arrival finds its optimism. In these moments of grandeur understanding as it is easy to fall into suit with the rest of the characters, such as Colonel Weber, and their priorities to value safety over larger understanding. We can comprehend why that would be valued, but a deeper understanding is something that could have much more macro connotations and Arrival revels in that.
Arrival is not optimistic because we are able to work with the aliens. It is optimistic because it exudes the qualities that should define humanity — compassion, curiosity and attention. We succeed because we look at other sources for knowledge and understanding and that in turn breeds optimism.
Arrival is the story of humanity, and because of that, we find optimism in it.