The heart opens us up to love, but every time it’s the beginning of a long goodbye.
Our time here is brief. Our connections temporary. As life wears on, decades become like books on a shelf you can pull out and flip through. But they’re permanent. They’re bound and published. You can’t go back and edit them and reprint them. The chapters are those years of scrambling around trying to pay the electric bill, or working through the worst breakup known to man, or fretting over gaining ten pounds, or the indelible tales of moving from house to house, traveling from town to town. The pages contain life’s irreplaceable joys and its unimaginable tragedies too — the moments that gut you for all time, leaving their profound mark and maybe ending everything good about life.
Denis Villeneuve’s exquisite Arrival gifts us with the chance to see ourselves from a different perspective: from the point of view of a species that possesses a higher intelligence than our own. Next to the heptapods, most of the humans look like fear mongers, irrational, impulsive and kind of dumb. Mankind’s reaction to them would be a military one, as it was in Close Encounters and again in Contact. We already know that our first response would be fear and then, resistance.
The writing, acting and directing are in perfect harmony with Villeneuve reaching new heights as one of the most talented directors working today. All he needs to make a great movie is a great script and Eric Heisserer has provided him with that. Finally, his film would need a formidable lead, an actress who can convey both the cerebral aspects of her character and her emotional journey as well, and they got that with Amy Adams who gives by far one of the best performances of the year as Louise Banks.
“How about we just talk to them instead of throwing math problems at them,” says Dr. Banks in the film’s opening scene. What follows is fascinating. As sharply a realistic depiction of what might occur when meeting an alien species as has ever been put on film. One of the reasons we all need to think about this is that we encounter highly intelligent species all of the time and most of us never fully appreciate it. Dolphins, whales, great apes and dogs — from the biggest mammal to the smallest, we are all connected in ways humans are, frankly, mostly too dumb to recognize. That is one of our biggest and most tragic flaws. After all, the ingredients for life, the building blocks for consciousness are all around us. They restart and reconfigure with each mass extinction and begin anew. Life evolving here on Earth has taken the strangest shapes imaginable, with higher intelligence and without it. If life exists elsewhere, as it surely must, chances are it has been built from the same basic molecular structures we have on our planet, and the tendency of biological refinement is toward ever-increasing complexity.
That the heptapods have evolved far enough to move through time as easily as we move from place to place, to see the future, past and present as an intricate continuum, and be able pass that perception on to humans is pure science fiction of the best kind. But it’s also eerily familiar. What I see when I watch Louise address and listen to them is what I feel when I ‘m with my dog and try to communicate — not wanting or needing him to speak my language, but adjusting my attitude to see things from his point of view, to find ways we can communicate with each other, for our mutual benefit. If humans could try to do more of this, if they could see pigs and cows and dolphins and whales and rhinos and elephants as fellow highly evolved mammals who are now systematically being eliminated, tortured and killed every second on our planet, that, to me, would mean we had evolved to a higher level of intelligence than the status we currently maintain. We too often see the planet and everything on it as something to use and consume. We don’t see it as sharing our world with other highly developed life forms. Extraordinary forms of consciousness beyond our capacity to grasp are, in fact, all around us. They just don’t come from another solar system.
But the tense and defensive men do something surprising in Arrival. They send a woman in. The last thing a woman is going to want to do is aim a gun and shoot at something that’s floating peacefully, or try to kill a creature that appears to mean no harm and shows no sign of danger. Women (well, most women) are better listeners and that is what is required here. Introduce yourself and then listen. “Human,” she says, simply. “Human.” That is the name for the thing, that small biped standing before them.
So why a woman. Well, it has been argued that the approach for some men upon meeting something new is to ask: do I fuck it, do I eat it or do I kill it? A woman’s response might be: is it going to kill me or eat me or fuck me? Women as a rule tend to be less about aggression and more about reception. How you identify might put you at odds with this assertion, and no individual is ever this cut and dried in every circumstance. But from a writer’s perspective, placing a woman in this scenario is essential.
To talk about Arrival is to talk about life and love and sex and death. It’s to talk about the best things we experience in a pretty awful and a pretty wonderful life. We are captivated by the immensely talented Amy Adams in the film’s five-minute prologue, as Prof. Louise Brooks sees her only child stricken with illness and die. If the film hasn’t touched you with the tumble of these searing moments, consider yourself mostly locked out from all else it has to offer. Even as you work your way through the rest of it, trying connect that fundamental reality of death to the elusive science fiction, the magnitude of Arrival will escape you. That’s because Arrival is as much about endings as it is about beginnings, and ultimately it’s about time itself. It’s about the limitations we have as human beings in seeing time as linear.
Indeed, why shouldn’t we see it as linear? As we experience the passage, it is. We are born, we have hopes and dreams, we live as best we can, and we die. Our deaths, if we’re lucky, come after a long life lived well. But as we grow older we become acutely aware that our lives face threats at every turn, every second of every day, everywhere in the world — in some places more treacherous than others.
I’m having a hard time letting go of the mommy part of my life. I’ll just confess that up front. Another admission: I’ve never been particularly happy. As someone who isn’t religious or even spiritual the meaning of life never really clicked for me until I took a class on human evolution. There I found a worldview that made some logical sense. It helped me see where we came from, why we’re here, what we’re doing here. Unlike some, I don’t believe man is the center of the universe. We’re each of us just a blip, really. I don’t believe everyone is “put here for a reason” that is any bigger or more important than the reasons any other life form might be here. I don’t know the why of it. No one does. Even if there is a why of it, I don’t think we are capable of understanding that. But I do know the one thing that gives us a sense of purpose is when we accept that we’re here because of and for other people.
Arrival takes that sense of purpose and extends it to a stage we rarely stop to consider. It tests the theory that our reason for living is to touch the lives of others, to be a link in that chain of existence. It lays out the way this occurs by showing us something we ordinarily can never see. If you were to know your child before that child is born — if you could hear her voice and watch her laugh, and see her drawings and her poetry — how could you decide not to meet her, not to see her, not to give her life?
So yes, in that way, if one wanted to rip through the beauty of Arrival, break its central premise down to an “issue” and try to distill its message to a lesson (as some have sought to do), they could say: “Well, isn’t this just another way of telling women they should never have abortions? And if women could meet their children they would not choose to abort them?” Honestly, that’s probably true on some level. I don’t know any woman who has had an abortion, myself included, who hasn’t been tormented by the decision and felt haunted years later. But the point of having that choice isn’t whether it’s right or wrong to do it. No, the point of choice is that men mistakenly believe they have the power to force that decision on women; to enact laws (or overturn them) that prevent any decision that doesn’t result in a birth. Indeed, many men watching Arrival are likely uncomfortable that the choice Louise Banks made was hers and hers alone.
Ted Chiang’s short story seems to suggest that the future was fixed and immutable, and that Louise did not have a choice. In Eric Heisserer’s adaptation she does. That is one of the most significant differences between the two. Heisserer also added the aggressive oppositional factor of the American military, a brute force all to quick to overreact with violence. That highly intelligent beings would arrive trying to help us and be met with our instinct to destroy them — what a sad commentary on our own species, and all the sadder since it’s so predictably likely. How stupid we are, how full of hate and fear we are. How violent we are. We have a choice to not be that way and yet, somehow we can’t help it. Chiang’s story does not take us down the path of life or death suspense that the film includes, because its brief focus concentrates on seeing time differently — as occurring all at once, not like the story in the book, but like the pages. It’s an elegant tale that remains aloof. Heisserer and Villeneuve have given their film a sense of urgency and framed it as a mystery to be solved. Louise is given the gift of seeing her future folded into her present perceptions so that she can flip back through the pages to find the part where she said the right thing at the right time. This mind-bending reach will either frustrate you or enthrall you, depending on how your brain is built, but for me it was a plot device that mattered less than the larger message the film would finally convey. And for me, it was personal.
The heptadods remind me of smart mammals that we disregard, torture and slaughter every day for our various selfish reasons. If we could find a way to listen and learn from them, if we could see them for what they are — a higher intelligence different from us but essential to our mutual survival — we ourselves might evolve beyond our own limitations. Perhaps if we could practice communicating with dolphins, for example, it would prepare us for confrontations with life forms we might find on other planets. We have to get over the idea that we matter so much more than every other living thing. We are tolerated, have survived by dint of brutal dominance, and have so far endured. But one day we will be long gone and life will churn on, another roll of the DNA dice, and nothing we hold dear will remain.
And without that, we are left with what’s in front of us right now. I will never forget the privilege of raising my daughter who has grown up to be much more than someone I love; she’s a person I respect and admire. I can remember holding my baby’s beating heart close to my own for weeks after she was born. I can remember her first steps, her first word, her first joke. It speeds by in my mind to the day she got her driver’s license. I remember it all, like pages in a book I can flip through, to retrieve and relive, but can never revise. Arrival sees time like that, as though you can reach back into the pages of the book. We don’t know the end. We can’t control that part of life. We can only know the beginning and the in-between. And though each of our stories become books on a shelf that are lived through, suffered and enjoyed, then completed, those volumes are filled with everything we are, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. They will reside in our minds and our hearts until our material elements come undone, returning to be rebuilt into new lives that come after ours are over. Even then they endure, in eternal infinite echoes.