I can describe the literal plot of the new sci-fi movie Arrival, from beginning to end, in four longish sentences.
Giant squid-like aliens come to the Earth in spaceships that look somewhat like black holes. They “park” in different countries, but it’s the U.S. that takes the lead in investigating them (surprise, surprise). The U.S. military (carried by Forest Whitaker) hires a brilliant female linguist (Amy Adams) and a brilliant male scientist (Jeremy Renner) to figure out what the aliens want, since the aliens don’t speak English. And, finally (spoiler alert): The linguist and scientist save the world (more against trigger-happy China than against the aliens), and fall in love.
But I don’t want to leave it at that.
Because to me, it’s really the underlying metaphysical plot that sets it apart from movies like Independence Day and even another film by Arrival director Denis Villeneuve – the action-packed Sicario – neither of which impressed me. Indeed, I caught myself still thinking about the existential themes in Arrival days later. I’d managed to get over the far-fetched CGI and agree within myself that it was decidedly a good movie.
You can argue “far fetched” is just the nature of sci-fi, but sci-fi can be more believable than this if properly developed in its constructed reality, no matter how distant from what we know. Anyway, I digress – let me tell you what actually worked for me in this film.
Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short fiction work Story of Your Life, deals with some of our biggest preoccupations.
The most obvious question it tackles is, of course, whether there is life out there in the universe. I like that the movie seems to leave that question open. In my view, we never find out who the aliens really are. They could be communicating with us from another dimension. They could be us in the future. The aliens can bend time – maybe because their “spaceship” could actually be a black hole? Maybe because the way they communicate is different?
The squid-like creatures give some of the time-bending gift to Louise Banks (Adams), but perhaps only in her mind. However, without one’s mind, does one really exist? Do others really exist? In that sense, Louise could be traveling back and forth between present and future. But the past – not so much. Perhaps she can’t change that, because she’d already made her choices for the time before meeting the “aliens.” (Or… there’s no past.)
This brings me to another human preoccupation, one of the most basic questions in philosophy: Do we have free will or are our actions pre-determined? The character of Louise seems to have a choice, as part of the time-bending perk. She gets to see her future and can probably act to avoid it, or let it be.
She sees that her involvement with her natural or accepted love interest (Renner) has an expiration date not so far off, as does what they create together.
The mind-boggling part is that actions in Louise’s future also determine her present. They give her crucial information to save the world in the moment she seems to be living right then. But those actions could not have come to be if Louise hadn’t acted a certain way in the present.
So if Louise were to go against the flow of love and attraction, the world could end, and then she’d have nothing and no one for any period of time, anyway. After all, an inch in another direction could dramatically alter our larger scheme. Will she share the gift the received – couldn’t it be dangerous if everyone had access to it? Will she only share it with the elite (world leaders and such)?
Even knowing for a fact that personal loss is on the horizon, Louise chooses to live the future she sees.
Would we do the same, or could we be trusted to do so? Would that somehow make it easier for us to be less attached and simply enjoy the moment, or unbearably hard to see bliss for what it is – ethereal?
We know that separation, death and other forms of suffering will inevitably befall us at some point; but to survive, we prefer to imagine it as something abstract. And when separation does happen, especially in the romantic sense, we often see it as failure. As if it were something we could have somehow avoided, controlled. What if it wasn’t? What if everyone in our lives serves a purpose for a certain while, but has to go so we all keep the world going?
Perhaps Louise’s acceptance comes when she realizes that time is not linear, that life and death are part of a loop – that time and space are only relative. I wonder if the gift Louise, the open-minded loner and super-talented linguist, gets from her friends the outer-space squids allows her to visit everyone she’s lost in the times when they were living happily together.
Perhaps this is what we all do without even knowing. In our minds, we can be there and here – and who’s to say we are not in both or multiple places at the same time? If you have a pet squid, ask it.