When my daughter first came into my life I had so many baby clothes for her I insisted that she take a photo in each outfit in hopes of preserving some kind of memory. There’s the outfit she wore the day I took her to the beach and she rode on my shoulders because she was afraid to swim in the water. There’s the outfit she wore the only day she ever went to daycare because she cried the whole time so I never sent her back. There’s the outfit she wore when her grandpa took her to the zoo and they waved at the chimps through the fence. Somehow by recording these details, I thought I could battle the torment of time moving too quickly through our lives. But alas, though a picture plants a memory, even a permanent one, there is nothing like the real thing. What if you found out that all of those wonderful memories might lead to a tragedy one day? What if you knew for sure that they would. Would you trade them all in, would you sacrifice each laugh, each new step, each sentence, each “I love you, Mommy,” to spare yourself the heartache of the unpredictable inevitably of our mortality?
That question might be at the heart of many movies here at Telluride, from La La Land to Toni Erdmann. But it is most profoundly asked and answered in Denis Villeneuve’s best and most challenging film to date, the brilliant Arrival. The question is asked even though we are born knowing the answer to the question. We don’t really have a choice. We’re here. We don’t know for how long. We don’t know where or when we’ll meet our fates except that we know for sure that all of us will. It could be a peaceful death at the age of 90 while sleeping. It could be an absurd death like choking on a peanut or falling on a treadmill. We just live our lives moment to moment knowing we can never know.
Two films dwell to some extent in Arrival’s territory, but none are really in its orbit either. There are similarities to Interstellar and Contact, with some Solaris thrown in. Interstellar and the cosmic view of Christopher Nolan has conditioned us to see time as a “flat circle.” Maybe that makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, but his narratives are open to interpretation. There is no such interpretation necessary for Arrival, though it seems like there might be.
To explain it would be to spoil it. But the film is based faithfully on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which you can read here if you want to know in advance what Arrival is about. The specifics of the aliens, the form they take, their language are all there to bring the main character Dr. Louise Banks (an exceptional Amy Adams) to the point where she can ask the important question: knowing what you know about how things turn out, would you still choose to go through with your life?
Arrival is also a rumination on how a higher intelligence than our own might manifest. There are two primary schools of thought on intelligence, as far as I’ve been able to figure out. The first — intelligence is the goal of all life on earth. It is the high point, the pinnacle, and humans will only become more and more intelligent as they evolve. Intelligent life in outer space, therefore, must surely have large heads to accommodate big brains to house that intelligence. In sci-fi and UFO conspiracy theories, the ETs are generally primates in form, bipeds with arms and legs, fingers and forward facing eyes, noses and mouths. That’s probably because humans are narcissists. They create everything in their own image, believe the universe revolves around them, and expect to see themselves when they reach outward into space.
The second school of thought is one that makes more logical sense to me. And that is that the jury is still out on human intelligence. We’ve only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. That’s the blink of an eye on the four billion-year timeline of life on our planet. In fact, an earlier version of human, Homo erectus, lasted two million years and they weren’t nearly as intelligent. Moreover, look at cockroaches or ants or sharks and the hundreds of millions of years their species have survived. The one thing we do know is that Earth has never seen as destructive an invasive species as Homo sapiens. Our intelligence has led us to exploit fossil fuel-based capitalism, which could eventually bring about the ruination of our habitat. Maybe our intelligence will carry on and evolve through artificial intelligence if we as corporeal beings don’t make it. Maybe not. We just don’t know. The bottom line is, despite all of the miracles we’ve built and created, we’re not all that bright in the final analysis. Just think about the thoughtless recklessness responsible for dumping eight million tons of plastic into the ocean. Eight million tons every year.
[Some spoilers ahead.]
This alternate school of thought says that there is probably plenty of life to be found in the universe, but it might not resemble our lifeforms at all. Intelligent beings in other galaxies might not feel compelled to build things at the expense of destroying other things. They might not depend on technology to fly into space or to communicate across great distances. In fact, looking at the myriad variety of lifeforms that have developed over the past epochs on our planet alone, probably it’s against all odds there would be anything else out there like us. Still, if there is extremely intelligent life out there, who knows what form it would take. In Arrival, they take the shape of squid-like beings with seven eyes and tentacles for legs. They’re called heptapods and they have language.
Naturally, humans — being self-destructive, fear-based, and collectively stupid on occasion — see them as a threat. This is where much of the tension in the film lies. Urgent conflicts arise when Dr. Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to stop the military from destroying the heptapods. The storyline of Banks trying to decode their language is intercut with imagery of an infant who grows into a child, who keeps speaking to Louise through what seem like flashbacks. The visions eventually take shape, as does the story, as does the point of the film. The heptapods aren’t there to specifically focus on a single character, as was the case with Interstellar. They have come to gift the human species with knowledge that would be helpful to us, and something that might save us.
Yes, we’re talking about time, space, heptapods, and aliens. You can probably guess that this isn’t something that many in the Academy will go for. It’s probably not even something most critics will go for. The most sophisticated science fiction is ordinarily expected to be more of a mind-bender than this is. In fact, Arrival isn’t a mind-bender at all, and it does not try to be. It’s simply concerned with framing some fundamental questions: would you do it all again? Is the presence of someone you love precious enough to you that you can be content to enjoy their company for a short time and say goodbye? Would you want them around even if you knew the pain that comes when they won’t be there forever? In fact, we all answer yes to those questions every day, don’t we. Every time we fall in love. Every time we bond with a dog. Every time we have a child. Especially when we have a child. So yes. YES. A hundred times yes. None of us knows how long we’ll be here ourselves, let alone those we hold dear. But be prepared for Arrival to ask these questions in a way that may feel more piercing.
All the same, for all Arrival’s clarity, many members of the Academy might be too conventionally-minded to really get it. The tech branches will probably not forget it. The film is beautiful to look at, with gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young. Art direction, score, sound, and visual effects also out of the park.
Here is one of those films where the woman is the smartest one in the room — and for Amy Adams that’s actually typecasting. The brilliant Ms. Adams has been given a chance to play wise characters before, in films like Julie and Julia, The Fighter, and Doubt, but she’s never really had a chance to carry an entire film as the authority figure, as the scientist, no less. It was Chiang’s conception to make his story about a scientist who is also a mother to answer the questions he wanted to ask. As a scientist, she must approach with objectivity. As a mother, she’s bound to primal impulses and irrational emotions. Adams is superb at balancing both.
If the future is indeed fixed and cannot be changed, it seems theoretically possible that someone with exceptional genius could figure out how to see it before it happens. But is that a gift? Or are we as a species blissfully unaware for a more important reason.
Ted Chaing has written a story, Eric Heisserer has adapted that story, and Denis Villeneuve has made a film that won’t ever let me forget that time is both cruel and precious. That life is both beautiful and ugly. That we humans can create glorious art and make stupid mistakes. That some of us are born to enjoy an idyllic existence, while many more must endure a lifetime of suffering. That happiness is euphoiric but fleeting. That birth makes endless promises and we will each one day die. Still, I wouldn’t have traded a minute of my life, especially when I’ve been handed the priceless gift of having time to indulge with my kid. If you’re lucky, this is the story of your life. I know it’s been the story of mine.