(This article contains major spoilers for Arrival, an excellent film that you absolutely should watch before reading ahead.)
Science fiction films aren't really about science fiction. Sure, spaceships and aliens and far-out technology are cool, but they're not the point. What these movies are actually about is social commentary.
For eons, even the most brazenly macho action sci-fis have had deeper themes than what you'd expect at first glance. Most of the time, these subtexts are based around a prevailing fear in society at the time of production, making sci-fi films markers of their time. Jurassic World wasn't about dinosaurs, it was about genetic modification; District 9 put a magnifying glass on our fear of immigrants; and Westworld is of course Elon Musk's worst nightmares condensed into a very sexy package.
However, what few sci-fi films manage to do is convey those underlying messages in a deep and meaningful way. All too often, an overhyped sci-fi movie can feel like little more than a lazy Banksy piece: Trying just a little too hard to make an edgy statement, but instead coming off as blatantly obvious and even lazy. At times, it's almost an insult to viewers.
A Real Game Changer
#Arrival is one film that's managed to completely blow its predecessors out of the water in that regard. It moves beautifully through an intriguing storyline, and unfolds ever-so-slowly to reveal a far more significant message.
Admittedly, it's not without its own sci-fi clichés. The portrayal of China and Russia as almost idiotic, gung-ho military superpowers who are all-too-eager to initiate an intergalactic war with a far superior alien race is a little contrived; Even more so when China's attack is completely halted by a good dose of nostalgia during a phone call to the General. Though to be fair, writer Eric Heisserer did respond to this during a Reddit AMA:
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The True Meaning Of 'Arrival'
Misgivings aside, Arrival completely nails its social commentary. It contains a myriad of subtle but powerful themes which resonate with the audience long after the credits have rolled. Let's take a look at just how it did that:
Arrival is a film based around a fear of the unknown "other". But at its core, it's a story about connection. Indeed, it's a value that's often ignored at large by humanity, especially in this day of social media and screen-fixation. But this terrible mistake has led to fatal failings amongst our race. By alienating ourselves from each other both socially and culturally, we create a damaging divide.
This divide is further displayed in the relationship between Louise and Ian. As soon as they're introduced, Ian naturally attempts to create a divide between himself and Louise, boasting about how science trumps linguistics— insinuating that he, as a scientist, is the assertive power over her.
What the heptapods are truly trying to communicate to our race is that connection is of the utmost importance; Something to be valued and cherished just as much as science, technology and power.
This is a message that Louise, a linguist, understands better than anyone else. Her profession means that she cherishes and respects communication (and connection) in all relationships. Her struggle to impart this same lesson on the military forces she's working under is an uphill battle, because they can't seem to place the same importance on something that is, at its core, an often vulnerable act.
That's the beauty in Arrival: rather than go the traditional route of being a metaphor for scientific panic, it chooses to focus on a social issue that is both fundamental and incredibly intimate between every human being: connection.
Given the inevitable panic and chaos that would be elicited from an alien species' invasion of our planet, it's ironic that the heptapods' final message was that we all just need to work together. Sorry guys, but the humans are a little busy trying to figure out if you're planning on decimating our entire species to set aside thousands of years of history and instantaneously get this whole "world peace" thing happening.
But the thing is, they're absolutely correct. The only hope for humanity comes from unity. And as much as it sounds like idealistic hippie rhetoric, the world will only be truly saved if we can allow our differences to bring us together, so that we can face challenges as a collective force. We'll never achieve peace while we're competing.
It's a timely message for the world right now, and particularly America, which is facing a massive divide amongst its citizens in the wake of the recent US election. In fact, Arrival's theme of cooperation ties in perfectly with the film's other core message of connection and communication— and Heisserer agrees:
3. The Importance Of Perception
Arrival's Heptapods have a unique and intriguing view of time: They see it as non-linear. This means that things don't necessarily begin or end, they just are. It's an incredibly zen concept, and one that brings a profound sense of peace to Louise once she manages to shift her method of thinking to align with theirs.
It's in this way that Arrival stresses the importance of perception. The way we choose to look at things can severely shape our world and have drastic consequences, both positive and negative. And it's acknowledged before we even begin to understand how the heptapods' circular language correlates to their worldview.
Louise's unique background already gives her an advantage over the rest of her team, as she is more inclined to think outside the box. For example, her reaction to learning that the Heptapods have come to Earth to deliver a "weapon" is vastly different to the panicked interpretation of that message from the military. She understands that while most may perceive that as a threat, it may just be a different interpretation of the same word. No tool is inherently evil— it's always about how it's appropriated.
The negative reactions to the heptapods from the world's various governments and armed forces is a product of perceiving them as a threat. Every action they take, and every message they interpret, is filtered through their perception of the heptapods as a malicious danger to humanity. And while it's a precaution that may have been warranted, it's this kind of assumption that blocks so much progress between the two species. Indeed, this method of thinking is one that's causing so many problems in our society today.
4. Taking Risks
While the military are doing absolutely everything they can to avoid an incident (save for those few moronic American soldiers), Louise — and sometimes Ian — are the only ones who don't feel the need to tread on eggshells. From the moment she removed her suit in the heptapod ship, Louise was taking massive risks. When she called the Chinese general, she knew she was risking being literally shot— and yet she still went ahead. Why? Because it was a risk worth taking.
However, things are a bit more complicated after she gains the ability to perceive events from any point in her life. The decisions she makes that have the most significant impact emotionally on the audience are personal. It all comes down to this quote:
"If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?"
Despite the knowledge that her daughter will die young, she still decides to go ahead and have a baby. She also knows that by making that decision, she's also dooming her future relationship with Ian, who will leave her once he finds out. And yet she still proceeds.
The truth is, pain is unavoidable. Taking risks can often have a tragic cost, but that's often the cost of living. The easiest way to avoid heartbreak would obviously be to completely avoid any relationships ever again. But is the threat of heartbreak really worth a life without love?
The everyday decisions we make are often scary— in fact, they can be downright terrifying. But it's worth taking those risks for the fulfilment that they'll bring.
5. The End Of The World (As We Know It)
Independence Day, War of the Worlds and Signs all depict an alien invasion as an overwhelmingly negative event that signals the end of our world. And while Arrival's ending was decidedly more positive, the impact the heptapods left on our planet was still, in a way, the end of an era.
After the heptapods leave, the entire mindset of the human race is changed. The "gift" they impart on Louise (and potentially other humans who learn their language) signals a new dawn of consciousness, and a complete start-over for our species. More importantly, the peaceful unity between nations that's so necessary to understand their language signals a huge shift from the war mindset that is such a core part of mankind's history. It's not quite utopian, but the story of Arrival is decidedly anti-dystopian.
Society has a huge fear of the end of the world. The paranoia surrounding the 2012 end of the Mayan calendar was almost perceived as a bigger threat than Y2K. One theory about the end of the Mayan calendar suggested that 2012 wouldn't bring about a chaotic destruction of the natural world, but the death of an old mode of consciousness. 2012 was supposed to be a time to move into a more constructive mindset, and abandon negative patterns of thinking.
This theory is certainly echoed in Arrival. It may be inaccurate to call it a film about the end of the world, but that's exactly what it is: a profound lesson in the necessity of destruction.
It's unclear wether Arrival will have the same impact on the world as the heptapods did on mankind. But it definitely feels like the kind of story that will impart some seriously necessary lessons on society— and it's up to the audience to decide if they're ready for that.
Check out the trailer for Arrival here: