Of all the 2016 releases I’ve seen so far, Arrival is easily my favorite. It’s the movie that gelled the idea for this blog, because I liked it so much I really wished I could recommend it to Dad. It has all the elements he really appreciated: a great story, great acting, visual distinctiveness, and an emotional punch.
The story concerns a linguist named Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who is called upon to try to communicate with aliens who have landed in a remote field in Montana, one of twelve such landings across the globe. Over time, Louise and her team, working in cooperation with counterparts at the other landing sites, start to decipher the aliens’ language of complex circular symbols. When they find an ambiguous message that raises doubt the aliens have arrived with peaceful intentions, the involved countries break off communications, and it appears a new world war is imminent. That’s pretty much the opposite of the aliens’ goal, so they speed-teach Louise their whole language, which has the unexpected benefit of allowing her to see both forward and backward in time. Using her knowledge of the future, she’s able to avert the impending global crisis and essentially bring about world peace.
If that sounds like ridiculous optimism for sci-fi story, it kind of is. But that’s what I found so refreshing about the movie, especially at a time when science and reason are under attack in U.S. politics. As a science communicator, I find much to love in an ode to evidence-based understanding over fear-based reactionism. It’s hard to imagine a lovelier or more eloquent argument for reason, curiosity, and the idea that the pursuit of knowledge can make us better people. The best sci-fi tells us about ourselves; in this case the story concerns characteristics of humanity—our capacity for wonder and empathy—that are truly, purely good.
I do wonder if my Dad would have found the movie a little slow. He might have expected a more traditional sci-fi movie, as I did when I first sat down to watch it without really knowing much about it. But at the point where the viewer begins to understand where the storyline with Louise’s family is going, I think he would have been hooked, as I was. Even if the pro-science theme didn’t land with him, the meditation on love and loss would have.
It’s not necessarily the development of Louise’s romantic relationship with Jeremy Renner’s character that would have grabbed him. It’s a very quiet, mature love story, whereas Dad tended to favor more drama. His favorite love stories had some element of the forbidden, the unrequited, the heroic. Watching a gentle, handsome dude fall in love with a woman for being smart and empathetic might make me swoon, but Dad would probably just shrug and move on. (Another obstacle for him would be the female love interest’s red hair, which he was always very vocal about not finding attractive, even to my red-headed childhood best friend’s face, much to my embarrassment.)
It’s the storyline with Louise’s daughter that would have resonated with Dad, I believe. Fairly early in the movie, we watch Louise’s daughter die of cancer. We later learn that because of the foresight granted to Louise via the alien language, she always knew this would happen, even before she got married, got pregnant, and raised her daughter. She knows exactly when and how she is going to lose her child, and she feels her grief ahead of time. Even so, she goes through with all of it—the marriage she knows will end, the wrenching losses she knows she’ll suffer. Louise fully engages in her family life and in each moment with her daughter. Her husband, on the other hand, can’t handle the knowledge of their daughter’s future when Louise reveals it to him. He shrinks from the impending pain, disengages, leaves them. And she, always knowing he would do this, chooses to love him anyway. Her love is the biggest and most generous I’ve seen portrayed on screen in recent memory.
I’m sure all parents would find this part of the story deeply affecting, but I imagine it would have especially poignant for my father. My theory, looking back, is that a major driver of his behavior in our relationship was a fear of losing me. There was a constant push and pull between us, a vacillation between connection and disengagement. What if we could have known the precise moment one of us would actually lose the other? Would we have behaved any differently? Would we have been more accepting of each other’s limitations, as Louise was of her husband’s? Would we have been more present with each other, as Louise was 100% present with her daughter?
I don’t know. It might be neither of us had the emotional bravery for that. But in the way it’s nice to believe in a humanity that acts from the best of its nature in an existential crisis, it’s nice to imagine we would have.