Thoughts On: Arrival (2016)
A film we’ve covered before and will be looking at again.
**THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I just watched Arrival for the second time and it holds up perfectly. Coming out of the first viewing, I entirely understood the movie and hopefully praised it for all it’s worth in our first look at it. However, despite my saying it was probably the best film of last year, I apprehensively typed those words. That’s because I felt the movie was maybe a little too transparent in its message and a little too emotional (bridging towards melodrama). But, these were just post-film anxieties in which I questioned my initial and secondary reactions to the film a few hours after voicing them. As said, I just re-watched this movie and its perfect; certainly, in my opinion, the best film to come out of last year (that I’ve seen so far).
However, what’s somewhat disappointing to me as I read and watch through other people’s responses to this film is their description of what makes it great. Many will talk about the sound design and cinematography – all of which are goddamn amazing – apart from the sequence where Louise is taken into the alien ship for the last time; the CGI and lighting aren’t great in this sequence. Others will talk about the performances or the small bits of commentary made by the film on how governments and people interact. These are, again, nice elements of the film, but, not what makes it truly great. The last thing people will often pick up on is the emotional impact of the narrative. This praise comes from those who clearly understand the implications of the play with ‘flashback’ and ‘flashforward’, ultimately seeing that the tragedy Louise faces with the death of her child is not behind her, but ahead.
But, this is just the beginnings of what this film means to ask. Arrival, the title of the movie, implies the coming of aliens, but also Louise’s child. Beyond this, Arrival is all about the idea of points in time – of an event hurtling its way toward you with each passing second. The core question that this narrative asks us as an audience is then all to do with choice. If you were to have a baby in the future, one that would live a short life and leave you alone in the world, would you choose to have this child?
This is a moral hypothetical that I’ll leave you to ponder. But, once you’ve done thinking about this conundrum that Louise faces, consider the wider implications of this. If the human race were to be ambiguously wiped out in 3000 years, and there was absolutely no way we could not stop this, what would you say we, as a species, should do?
If you, like Louise, would have your baby and accept your miserable future with the knowledge that you could make it as best as you could while it lasted, then maybe your answer to this question is to attempt to pass on the essence of our species and so relinquish our power to another race.
The kind of thinking that this film means to demonstrate is opposed to the common paradigm of human thought that you see outlined in societies. Many would refuse to answer both of the questions I’ve posed with a yes or a no, or a simple answer. Many would say they’d have the baby, but let doctors know about the disease and do everything in their power to cure it. Most would assume the same stance when asked the second question; let’s grab our nukes and drills and do whatever we have to do to save this planet and our species.
There is, in my view, a flaw in this kind of thought. I think its entirely rational to refuse fate and try to strive for better – whether that be to save your baby or the entire human race. However, there comes a point in all of our lives where we look so far ahead that certain things become inevitable. No matter how much you moisturise, eat healthy and exercise, you will die. This is a fact. It may be when you’re 50, it may be when you’re 110, and maybe scientist will figure out a way to stop us all from dying before you kick the bucket. But, we can all pretty much safely say that we’re going to die some day. The type of person who refuses to think about these things is, I’m about to lean on a stereotypical perspective, emotional to the point of irrationality. That is to say that the kind of person that refuses to think about the inevitability of their death will white-knuckle their ride towards it with their eyes closed before the last second in which they open their eyes to see death’s door… and they’re now petrified. They’ve had their whole life to prepare for this moment, and they refused to sit down and study for the test… now they’re fucked. Maybe they start telling themselves that there’s a heaven, maybe they tell themselves that they’ll find another life, that there’s more to be found… but, maybe it all ends here…
There is this urgent sense of doom when you think of life linearly. That is to say that, to recognise that things start, you must also recognise that they will end. This paradigm of thought is what clouds people’s minds and has them live emotionally in the moment. And this can have horrible side-effects. The main side-effect is the translation of life’s urgency into every second of your day – which is tantamount to a blindness, or simply being semi-conscious at best. This leads humanity to hope and wish for endless futures; like children assume they will never die, this is what many adults tell themselves with more elaborate tales – or simply a lack thereof. Ideas of heaven, reincarnation and an afterlife come from a screeching human anxiety of presentness. When we are trapped in ‘the moment’, we are scared of all that will come, and cling to all that has happened. This stops or stagnates evolution and change as we try to map and control the future (perceptually or otherwise) from a model of the past. This is something you see in everyday social interaction, politics and inner thoughts. We hate ambiguity, and because of this fear we end up being intolerant of the indescribable lack of definition inherent to the universe; we all like to think we know it all.
But, maybe accepting that we know next nothing will help us gain more knowledge. And so, to perceive inevitability in an accepting light – to not refuse all adversity because of something you will somehow do in the future – you open yourself up to the ambiguity and complexity of life. So, what a film like Arrival is asking of us is how we may change our perception of time to better facilitate ourselves in a universe we do not understand, nor control. The most poignant detail to recognise is then Louise’s submission despite being something of a God on Earth; she knows the future, yet she doesn’t try to change it as she knows that is beyond her power. Then again, maybe the future isn’t solid, maybe her daughter won’t die of cancer, maybe she has the ability to avoid that impending misery. However, is it not better to emotionally prepare yourself for the worst just in case and continually make the best of the short time you think you know you have?
If we all had this type of mindset where we consider the long distance future humbly, the world would change significantly. How? I couldn’t possibly relay the details. But, it seems very evident that a lot of harm and needless frivolity, as the film demonstrates, comes from overly short-sighted thinking.
The lasting message that you may take from Arrival is then on being temporally humble or centred. Having looked into the future, having considered our past, we can better deal and lock into the present moment. Never should we only think of the past, never should we only think of the future, and never should we let the present take over our lives. Compounding and considering all of time in one thought gives you perspective that is unshakable; after all, how can you shock or surprise a person who is expecting the unexpected? Answer: you will, but, it’s their reaction that counts, that truly makes the difference; instead of punching you in the face or shitting themselves, maybe they’ll react more moderately.
This is the essence of Arrival, and though it is a clear message that you can map out quite precisely, it’s a truly poignant one gained through a mesmerising cinematic experience. So, what are your thoughts on Arrival? How do you see the film?
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