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Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016)

By Jonahh Oestreich • August 9th, 2020
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
ARRIVAL (2016)
Paramount Pictures

Original release: November 11, 2016
Running time: 116 minutes

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Arrival (2016)

Many critics have praised Arrival as one of the best films of 2016. Sam Lansky (Time) called it a “sophisticated, grownup sci-fi: a movie about aliens for people who don’t like movies about aliens.” The story is both introspective and evocative, it touches on existential questions and offers a glimpse of the “language of the universe”. Arrival challenges our perception of time while being deeply emotional.

And for once, the aliens are not humans in disguise. They “touch down” in gigantic shells; featureless, hovering a few dozen feet above ground in 12 locations around Earth. No fancy lights. No visible weapons. Silent. It seems they’re not doing anything but waiting.

Eventually, we get to see them, but there’s no real contact. The beings — giant squid-like creatures standing on seven limbs (“heptapods”) — always stay behind a screen, moving around in what looks like white smoke, spraying circular symbols onto the screen, which turn out to be palindromes.

The humans must learn their language, and make the beings understand them. “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” This is a quote from a book written by the lead character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams). We could add that language can also cause conflict. The events in Arrival are a case in point. What do you do when you can’t tell the difference between a “weapon” and a “tool”?

That’s when basic — human — instincts kick in. The aliens may be a threat. “We have to consider the idea that our visitors are prodding us to fight among ourselves until only one faction prevails.” (Agent Halpern, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) Human history is the evidence, not what the aliens do. Columbus against the indigenous people of America; annihilation of the “lesser” civilization.

In a way, Arrival foretells the dilemma humankind has been facing since 2017, even if most people are not aware of it yet. The US military admitted they have been investigating so-called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, also known as UFOs. In April of 2020, they legitimized three leaked US Navy videos that show flying objects defying the known laws of physics. They are still classed as genuine unknowns.

In the Arrival story, the aliens have come to help humanity. In 3,000 years, they will need humanity’s help — a realization that probably spared Earth a global conflict. This would not have been possible without Louise Bank’s tenacity. She ignored the military’s Arrival (2016)stance and saved the world – in a rather non-sensational but touching way.

Researcher by researcher, science seems to wake up to the reality of the UFO phenomenon. Arrival shows how difficult this is likely to be. The phenomenon is hypercomplex. Despite a wealth of data, robust conclusions seem impossible yet. The facts speak a language we have no vocabulary for. After generations of ridicule and denial, the phenomenon is still considered a taboo by many.

And many may think the phenomenon is a threat. The human fear of “The Other”. There is an interesting dialogue in Arrival that hints at the choice we might face in the case of contact.

Louise: The weapon is their language. They gave it all to us. Do you understand what that means?
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker): So we can learn heptapod. If we survive.
Louise: If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do. So you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.

There is a difference between caution and paranoia. Would we be able to see the potentials despite a possible threat? The question is, a threat to whom, or what? It’s safe to assume the phenomenon is the ultimate challenge to the status quo.

I wonder how much the public at large actually knew about what was going on at the landing sites in Arrival. There were riots, looting, demonstrations, and maybe mass suicides. This was probably the only real cliché in the movie; that people are not ready to deal with the reality of not being alone in the universe (if that’s what it is).

In the end, it might be about much more. The realization that the reality we think we live in is but a sliver of true reality. The real danger might be that we allow anyone to monopolize our perception of the truth that is “out there”. A threat narrative won’t help. There is no evidence. We might turn ourselves into a threat. And if “they” are really a threat, would it matter what we think and do at all? Human standards and concepts have evolved on Earth. They might be alien to the rest of the universe.

“We’re so bounded by time, by its order. But now I am not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” (Louise Banks)

Arrival has no happy ending. Its ending is a beginning. It makes you think about a different world, even if you don’t have the language to describe it yet.

Arrival (2016)

Jonahh Oestreich

Jonahh Oestreich

One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh has been working in the media industry for over 20 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.

You can follow Jonahh on Twitter @Jonahh_O.

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