Thoughts On: Arrival - The Communicative Singularity


Arrival - The Communicative Singularity

Thoughts On: Arrival

12 extraterrestrial spacecrafts touch down on Earth.

Having now seen many of the major films of last year that I wanted to catch (though, not all), from Silence to La La Land to Captain Fantastic, Deadpool, Swiss Army Man, Moonlight, Zootopia, Everybody Wants Some to The Nice Guys... I can safely say that Arrival is probably the best film to come out of 2016. Moreover, this is, in my opinion, one of the best sci-fi films to ever be made. When we think of the best of sci-fi, we immediately come to one film and that is irrefutably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some may disagree, may hear people say this and not understand why, and so I think it's best to ask why many people think this? Why is 2001 often hailed as the best sci-fi film of all time?

The answer comes down to the fact that we're asking about science fiction as a cinematic genre. The draw of science fiction for the both the filmmaker, writer, director, artist and audience is the fact that sci-fi can do what no other genre can. And that is introduce to an audience emotional and intellectual thought on the largest of philosophical and existential ideas. It is then through films such as Blade Runner that we're made to question when a human starts being a human. It is through 2001 that we are forced to question where we came from and where we're going. It is through The Matrix and Inception that we can question reality and our place in it. It's through Alien that we can question our place, and possibly inferiority on a biological level, in a grander scheme of things. It is through Terminator and Her that we can question our relationship with technology. It is through E.T that we can question what home is and what it is to be a friend to someone.

I could go on and on and on, but, the crux of my point here is that sci-fi has a conceptual capability to question and present ideas that all other genres do not. When we look to 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are seeing a film that asks the most profound and sprawling questions through the most intricate and awe-inspiring cinematics. It then reaches the pinnacle of science fiction for both its narrative and filmic design. Villeneuve's Arrival pushes towards these heights that are inhabited by the likes of Blade Runner, E.T, The Matrix, Terminator and 2001. Whilst it cannot be said with much confidence just where Arrival sits on this list (because it only came out a few months ago and needs to be subjected to many re-watches over the years) this is a clear contender for the upper echelon of science fiction greats. To explain why I think this, we'll quickly delve into Arrival's design and then narrative.

Starting with the way this film is constructed, Arrival is imbued with suspense and tension that not only has us drawn to Dr. Banks as a character, but engage with every facet of the narrative. Characterisation in this film is not perfect, however. But, this is not necessarily a fault in its design. To explain, there are many minor characters in this narrative that are needed to drive it forward - from soldiers to scientists to colonels to supervisors and so on. Many of these are archetypal caricatures. This is, arguably, weak characterisation. However, Villeneuve and Heisserer (screenwriter) have design the narrative to focus on Banks alone. To begin fleshing out every single minor character would cheapen the film vastly as it would accentuate the fact that there simply isn't time to get to know these people on the same level as Banks. This is something many of Nolan's film suffer from. Too many characters are given spotlight when there only needs to be one or two focuses on a film - a Batman, Joker or Cobb. By reducing many characters to archetypal agendas, such as representatives of various governments, minor characters are given a purpose whilst supporting the narrative - not just plot. Characters that only serve plot are grating as they explain stuff and force conflict just so the film can continue. There are a plethora of examples I could raise, but, sticking with Nolan we'll use Inception as an example.

Characters such as Ariadne, Arthur and Eams do nothing but help Cobb or ask him questions. There's hints of individual personage given to them with distinct behaviours that raise them above mere plot devices, but, they are primarily little more that words and actions that help the plot advance. In such, Ariadne, Arthur and Eams contribute primarily to plot, not to narrative. To clarify, plot is just things happening - it's going from this dream to that, to that. Narrative on the other hand is story, is the bigger picture of how the film makes us feel, what its message is, what the characters' goals are and what they represent. Through Cobb, we see that the crux of Inception is about questioning your place in reality. This is because Cobb doesn't know what is real and what is a dream on an emotional level - and that is what Maul's narrative purpose is. Not only does Maul develop Cobb's character as well as provide an emotional side of the film, but she exposes themes of unknowing, unacceptance and fear in Cobb. By overcoming her and seeing his kids again, we see the narrative point of Cobb, Maul and their children is to present the idea that accepting a shade of reality is more important than knowing a true reality. How do Eams, Ariadne and Arthur fit into this picture? The truth is, they don't really. They merely are there to explain things and make the plot function the way it does - with guns, explosions and a plethora of distractions. This suggests that Nolan could have re-written the script to cut these people out and still make the same narrative point - maybe in a more succinct and poignant manner. But, without delving into further speculation, this simply shows us why characters that merely serve plot aren't very palatable.

On the flip side, we come back to Arrival. The many minor characters do not just serve plot, but serve narrative like Maul does in Inception. The archetypal minor characters represent sides of humanity and so their joint character arc supports the thematic message of the film. But, we will dive into all of the details of this when we talk about Arrival's narrative. Before this, however, we'll round up talking about the film's design by saying that this is an astounding looking movie. Through direction and cinematography, an intimate and sometimes unbelievable story is put to screen. In such, the film achieves so many wow moments not just through spectacular wide shots, but by delving into characters in a cinematic fashion. This leaves each frame of this film of such precious importance and allows performances to provide maximum impact. Brought together with editing, the direction and cinematography craft a fluid and mesmerising narrative that takes time to unfold, but keeps us riveted constantly. So, all in all, Arrival is a terrific cinematic experience and a film easily watched. If you haven't seen it yet, certainly check it out. Coming to the narrative side of things, I must now warn of...


The story of this film is simply about communication. With the question of Arrival's tagline, Why Are They Here?, comes the crux of the film. The aliens need humans to help them in 3000 years, this is why they come to Earth. But, for people help to the aliens, we must learn how to come together and advance as a species. The way to do this is simply scientific evolution. This is what the film makes a comment on when Ian suggest that science is the cornerstone of a society. However, he only asserts this after Louise suggests that it is language that is the essential element of human existence. The truth that is later revealed by the conflicts of the film is that communication and science have to be in a symbiotic relationship to truly function for a vast group of people. This is why each individual country can decipher and interact with the aliens, but will only be able to understand and use the given tools by coming together. This means that, if only the Americans or Chinese understood the heptapod language and didn't share this knowledge, war would probably ensue with one nation progressing past and attempting to leave behind another. This is why science and communication are shown to be an imperative couple; knowledge and the capacity to share that power is the means by which people may help the heptapods and one another.

This is the surface level commentary on the film. This idea propagates beyond humanity with the implication that, if humans helped the aliens, they would continue to help us form inter-species relationships. This could mean we are given the ability to transcend space and time physically - just as the aliens must have (considering they've reached Earth). This opens up the universe to us human beings. We can not only go to other planets, but engage with other life forms and come together to understand the universe. This could all result in knowledge and power being shared across galaxies to the extent that all life forms come to completely comprehend and maybe transcend reality.

However, the path to this ultimate omnipotence is not just a physical one, but an emotional one too. We come to understand this in the way that Louise, not just humanity as a whole, is effected by the arrival of the aliens. She is given the mental capacity to see into the future, to perceptually transcend space and time. This allows her to foresee her daughter's death. There is nothing she can do about this though as she only has a mental omnipotence. But, this is shown to be besides the point. The greatest gift that the aliens give Louise is the ability to appreciate the finite nature of life. She is given the emotional capacity to engage with life on an individual level. There is no egotistical yearning in her to learn the secrets of the universe for herself and become god-like. She only tries to enjoy her, ultimately mediocre and bittersweet, life to come. This means that she knows she will have a bad relationship with Ian, one that will dissolve with distrust, will certainly lose her daughter to disease, but nonetheless seeks out this life to come as that seems to be where she finds her purpose. The subtle commentary of this is something that juxtaposes with a remark made by Louise when talking about the aliens. She doesn't know if they are completely conscious and if they aren't just acting on instinct or impulse by arriving on Earth. This is a question that is never truly resolved beyond the suggestion that the aliens are just as, or slightly more, 'conscious' than/as humans. However, with the conclusion of the narrative, with Louise knowing her family's fate, she embraces her emotional instincts as an almost semi-conscious being. This suggests that humans will always have some amount of confines to their nature - that there will always be that emotional need for others.

To understand why this point is made we have to again ask why the heptapods come to Earth. They say they're going to need our help in 3000 years. What with? The only real answer we can infer is that we can't know. However, there are two speculative answers we can suggest. The first is that the heptapods believe that we can, with their technology and capabilities, be smarter than them in 3000 years. This means that we will help the aliens after evolving past them as a way to thank them for being our proverbial monolith. This is an inference I don't see much weight in, however, as, what is stopping the aliens themselves from evolving, what makes us so different? What then makes more sense is that the aliens need us for our resources. This means that they could possibly want to move into our planet, to have us become apart of their society. After all, we only get to know that there are 24 aliens left. Where did they come from? How many more are there? Maybe these aliens could be the last of their species. Maybe their numbers dwindle and they are reaching out to people as to develop a community across galaxies. Furthermore, it is possibly that both of these inferences could combine. Maybe the heptapod numbers are dwindling and the only way they can reestablish their species is with our help, with our resources, aid and knowledge. Or, maybe their species will be gone in 3000 years and they want their culture, society and universal impact to carry on through us.

Understanding that this may be the possible reason for the alien arrival, we can see the thematic point this narrative building. Just like people need others, just like Louise Banks needs her family-to-be, maybe there will come a time where species start needing others in an intellectual capacity. With the canary that is used throughout the film, we see that species already use each other to survive. Maybe the alien outreach is a mere extension of that. In such, we see that there is a universal unity or supportive network woven through all life. This is demonstrated by Arrival to make one of the most poignant commentaries on war, conflict and destruction that is catalysed by a lack of proper communication. By understanding ourselves and our place in space and time, humans may evolve to become omnipotent beings in equilibrium with the universe. And such seems to be the driving essence of all life; a movement towards a grand unity for the sake of the individual and self-proliferation.


Having delved into the formal and narrative achievements of Arrival, I think the importance and power of this film, especially as a work of science fiction, should be transparent. Arrival isn't 2001: A Space Odyssey as Villeneuve doesn't capture the level of scope or imagination Kubrick does, but it does sit in the same cinematic realm in my opinion. However, what are your thoughts?

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