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Warning: this post contains “Arrival” spoilers.
“We are the hero of our own story,” Mary McCarthy wrote in Characters in Fiction.
In other words, in the stories we tell, whether fictional or pertaining to our own lives, our personal beliefs give our choices shape. It’s difficult to see outside of our paradigm, and to understand that the people we ideologically oppose may not be “evil,” but instead driven by a separate set of motivations.
This sentiment has been borrowed by contemporary writers like Teju Cole, whose Open City follows a morally questionable narrator, and George R.R. Martin, whose books chronicle warring families who believe staunchly in the good of their own causes.
Each author seems to be critiquing a hero-centric approach to storytelling ― stories with zippy plots that rest on the battle of good versus evil. A hero travels to space to defend his ravished homeland; a heroine’s life-as-she-knew-it is endangered by the arrival of ominous visitors. In order for a story to have tension, science-fiction purists argue, it must explore warring ideologies, allowing the “good guys” to triumph in the end, rather than taking a nuanced look at competing wants and reaching a peaceful resolution.
But a recent, worthy addition to the science-fiction canon rejects that idea, and successfully demonstrates that a movie can be at once edge-of-your-seat entertaining and ethically responsible – altruistic, even.
“Arrival” is based on a Nebula-winning short story by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Your Life.” Both the story and film are centered on the idea of linguistic relativity ― that the words you use shape your thought processes, and that language produces thought rather than merely explaining it. It’s not hard to see how this theory ― the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis ― could have political implications, and both the story and film tread confidently into that territory without getting mired in ideology.
These aren’t the garrulous, humanoid species found on “Star Trek” episodes, or the slimy, bellowing slugs found on sinister planets in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
The movie begins with a shot of Amy Adams playing with her daughter, and a heartbreaking montage of a rare illness that ravishes their lives. Already, we’re shown that this isn’t a sprawling saga, but a quieter, more personal journey.
Then, the aliens arrive. Twelve massive, black pods hover over worldwide regions that were selected, it seems, at random. The vessels look like Noguchi sculptures: elegant constructions made of organic material, but vaguely foreboding nevertheless.
Chaos ensues, but it’s more of a pressure change than a full-blown apocalypse. Adams, an accomplished linguistics professor, continues to show up for a class that she teaches, but her students do not.
Soon after, she’s visited by a military colonel who’s interested in her expertise. He plays warbled audio of aliens potentially trying to communicate with them, or each other; Louise asserts that she’d have to witness their exchange in person to have a shot at understanding. The colonel threatens to pursue the help of another linguist, who, it’s implied, is Louise’s competitor. “Ask him the Sanskrit word for ‘war,’ and its translation,” Louise pleads. When the colonel reappears, he says the other linguist said “gavisti” means “an argument,” whereas Louise translates the same word as “a desire for more cows.” That a single word could be interpreted in two adjacent ways with diverging implications is an idea that resonates throughout “Arrival,” a movie that’s ultimately about seeking to understand values and perspectives that look alien to us.
With spidery limbs, squid-like movements, and elephant-thick skin, the aliens in “Arrival” look neither threatening nor familiar. These aren’t the garrulous, humanoid species found on “Star Trek” episodes, or the slimy, bellowing slugs found on evil planets in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” They aren’t the doe-eyed, endangered species with conveniently Western values found in “Avatar,” or the plush doll-worthy characters found in “E.T.” or “Wall-E.” They’re a foreign population with unrecognizable values and modes of communication.
As the movie progresses, we learn alongside Louise and her physicist counterpart, Ian (Jeremy Renner), how to approach such a situation openly and kindly. Louise labors to consider multiple interpretations of the aliens’ message, ensuring that nothing is lost in translation. She begins to think the way they think, embodying the total empathy needed for diplomatic harmony.
This premise is beautiful in its simplicity, and it’s unfortunately absent from big-budget science-fiction movies. There might’ve been a pivot away from good-versus-evil stories in recent years, with movies like “The Martian,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “Melancholia” fusing space exploration with its impact on individuals or personal relationships. “Arrival” does this too ― Louise is able to use the aliens’ philosophy to cope with loss ― but it doesn’t shirk the task of telling a story that’s both entertaining and responsible in its portrayal of the “other.”
“There are days that define your story beyond your life,” Louise reflects, acknowledging the wide, richly textured world that lies beyond our own perspectives. Be more than the hero in your own life, this movie says. Understand what being a hero means to others.