(WARNING: HUGE spoilers for Arrival below)
#Arrival is a triumph of #scifi and weird Lovecraftian fiction. A culmination of original ideas, classic tropes and an optimistic message, it succeeds where so many Hollywood movies have failed as of late. The story is well written and brilliantly displayed on the screen to both dislocate the viewer, placing them in the strangeness of the character’s situation, as well as pack an emotional punch that will have you choking back tears in the film's climax.
Having heard a little bit about this movie online in the last couple of weeks, I wasn’t particularly committed to seeing it at the cinema, as I’m not generally a “first encounter” movie fan. Aside from #IndependenceDay (1996) I haven’t really found a movie in this genre that I particularly like. I figured I’d maybe watch it on DVD once it came out, but that would be about it.
It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon where I saw the movie mentioned on the Lovecraftian horror sub-reddit and gave the trailer a second glance over, this time through the lens of Lovecraft, who if you aren’t familiar with my other blogs, is my favorite #horror writer of the 20th century.
What Is Lovecraftian Horror?
Just quickly, to catch you up to speed — Lovecraftian horror is a brand of science fiction horror invented by #HPLovecraft and championed by horror and sci-fi writers for years. His influence can be seen in everything from #StarWars to #Alien to #Hellboy. On the surface, Lovecraftian horror is all about tentacled alien gods from other dimensions/planets and forbidden books of spells or incomprehensible knowledge. But really, Lovecraftian horror is about a few specific themes.
The most prominent theme is that of Cosmicism. The idea that humanity is small and insignificant in the face of the cosmos. This theme is generally accompanied by a truly pessimistic philosophy, typically displayed through the emotions of despair, hopelessness, dread and insanity.
Lovecraftian horror also considers the concept of insanity and what can drive a human being mad, as well as “that which man was not meant to know.” Arrival is what I would describe as almost-Lovecraftian. It carries many of the cosmetic elements of Lovecraftian horror while adapting the cosmic elements as well.
Meet The Characters
Word of warning here: Because Arrival is a film I would strongly suggest viewing with no prior knowledge about the story, I need to stress here, that if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe stop reading, that is unless you can handle the spoilers.
The hero of this film is Louise Banks, played by the brilliant Amy Adams (Her, Catch Me If You Can). Louise is a brilliant linguist who is recruited by the US military alongside Ian Donnelly, a biologist, played by the equally brilliant Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). Together they are called to help translate the language of the aliens whom they call “Heptapods.”
The Academic Outsider
Like much of Lovecraft’s work, Arrival incorporates the character archetype of the academic hero, somebody with a university background and a thirst for knowledge, a thirst that throughout the course of the story will get them in a fair bit of trouble.
Another archetype often used in this genre is that of the outsider, a hero who even though they look normal and live within normal society, feel like an outcast compared to those around them.
In Arrival, Louise fits very nicely into both these archetypes, being the university lecturer, as well as somewhat disconnected from those around her due to a tragedy from which she has never recovered.
Communicating With The 'Heptapods'
Arriving at “ground zero” where the alien ship has landed, Louise and Ian find themselves meeting with sea creature-inspired Heptapods that dwell within the gigantic spacecraft.
These alien beings are beautifully eerie and reminiscent of the Great One (Cthulhu) from Lovecraft’s famous alien mythos. They are also expertly hidden behind a wall of white mist, so that we the audience are unable to really get a grasp on what they look like. This technique of hiding the monster is something I have talked about before as being a hallmark of wise storytelling within the supernatural/horror genre, and while Arrival is not necessarily what I would call a horror, these first encounters with the octo-starfish aliens is almost overwhelmingly creepy.
Things begin to get really interesting, however, once communication starts to be established between Louise and the creatures via a beautiful alien alphabet, that the aliens present to the humans via squid ink-like deposits that float inside the mist.
Being an English major and having studied the basics of Linguistics, I could have sat and watched these interactions between the two species for hours, and I may be a bit biased, but I think the writers did a very good job at conveying an academically dense topic in such an interesting way.
Anyhow, while all this is going on, there’s a bit of a sub-plot involving the political and military tensions of countries around the world as they try to figure out whether the alien space crafts should be considered a threat or an extraterrestrial attempt to introduce humanity to the rest of the galaxy.
The theme of insanity does pop up throughout the film, but not in the cliché way that one might expect in a Lovecraftian styled story. There’s no insane asylum or internal monologue detailing the incomprehensible “blasphemous abominations” of alien life, rather, insanity is explored more through the context of perhaps anxiety, depression and/or PTSD.
As the characters’ drive toward the spacecraft for their very first time, Louise is physically shaking with anxiety and fear at what she is about to encounter, and in the moment where she and Ian return to the base camp, you can see just by looking at their faces, how physically shaken they are.
From this point on, it is as if encountering these mind-blowing creatures is gradually changing Louise — she doesn’t sleep, her hands are constantly shaking and she becomes plagued by bizarre visions of her deceased daughter as well as the life forms themselves.
In the climax of the film, where the military powers of the world are getting ready to commit an act of violence against the alien visitors, Louise has a pretty intense encounter with the Heptapods and is given understanding of their entire language. She leaves this experience half-conscious muttering about how she couldn’t understand, how it was “too big.”
Without spoiling the ending for you, this scene brilliantly resolves the inquiry the film makes into insanity by combining it with the theme of “forbidden knowledge” and revealing perhaps one of the best twists I have ever seen in a film.
Where the film departs from Lovecraft’s blueprints is the fact that it is a surprisingly hopeful piece of storytelling. We are not left — like we often are with Lovecraftian horror and weird fiction — with a sense of despair and hopelessness. Rather, the film chooses to tackle a refreshing and timely commentary on human nature.
In a way, the film (when it really comes down to it) is all about the mistakes that human beings make, and how we will repeat said mistakes over and over again, even though we know what the outcome of our actions will be. While this sounds rather depressing, the film adds a caveat. In one of the final scenes, Louise hugs Ian and asks him (paraphrased):
“If you could see your whole life before you, everything that was going to happen, would you change a thing?”
To which he replies:
“I’d maybe be a bit nicer.”
The writers seem to be suggesting that while yes, we do often times knowingly make the same decisions over and over and sometimes that decision is a mistake. However, sometimes it’s worth enduring the pain of a decision simply for the good that can come from it, and perhaps, just maybe, it isn’t a mistake at all, but something that was always meant to be.
That is why Arrival is an almost-Lovecraftian masterpiece. It is definitely a masterpiece, I assure you that, and the fact that it doesn’t quite stay true to form with its Lovecraftian source is actually a benefit.
Believe me, I’m all for a bit of pessimistic horror every now and then, but sometimes, it’s nice (and especially with what is going on in our world today) to have a happy ending, one in which peace wins, and the world is changed, evolved into a place where wars become a thing of the past, and we realize how as human beings, we are all connected to each other, that no one is truly the outsider archetype, and we can all work for a better future.
What did you think of the movie? Let me know in the comments below!