The hidden dilemma at the heart of “Arrival”

It’s not the aliens or the plot twist that will make you come away from Arrival with a sense of disappointment…

The sci-fi movie Arrival was released in November of 2016. After being nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, I decided to watch it over the weekend to see what it was all about.

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[WARNING: Spoilers ahead.]

Someone on Facebook had said, months ago, that it reminded them of Interstellar. That film featured a somewhat cerebral investigation into the nature of the universe. The fact that this investigation was carried out by Matthew McConaughey, who isn’t necessarily known for his soft touch, was also a pleasing twist. That movie also inquired about a very basic theme: what it means to be human. It did this through asking a simple question: what is love?

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Arrival explores these same themes. Roger Ebert provides a good summary:

Amy Adams gives a confident, affecting performance as Louise, a linguistics expert brought in on the day that 12 unidentified flying objects enter Earth’s orbit. Despite what they’re telling the public—which is not much of anything at first—the governments of the world have made first contact with the creatures inside, beings that look vaguely like some higher power merged an octopus with a giant hand.

Working with the military and a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise seeks to find the answer to a very simple question: What do you want? The Heptapods, as they’re eventually called, speak in sounds that echo whale noises at times, but Louise quickly learns that written language is the way to communicate, even deciphering the complex way the interstellar tourists write. As she gets closer and closer to being able to convey that crucial question in a way that it (and its answer) will be understood, the world’s uneasiness continues. Will man’s protective instinct kick in before its science and language leaders can figure out a way to stop it?

Louise also has darkness in her life. The opening scenes detail the birth, brief life and death of a child.

I can understand why Arrival is compared to Interstellar. It probes the same questions, but from a different perspective. The basic sci-fi elements are the same: manipulating time in some way, and the consequences it has on the past, present, and future. But where Interstellar’s angle is distinctly Western — literally, quite mechanical in its ideas of how higher dimensions and imperceptible gravity waves may link past and future with the present — Arrival takes on a much more Eastern flavor in how it handles time travel. It takes more of an “all is one” approach to the concept of time.

In fact, it reminds me of the way LOST handled time travel. (For a refresher, watch the Season 4 episode titled “The Constant.”)

But looking past the metaphysical plot twist that the movie dazzles us with, the heart of its dilemma is ethics: what’s the right thing for Louise to do once the aliens leave?

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