The prescient wisdom of Arrival: How it uncovered a culture of healing 4 years before the world began bleeding
In many ways, the 2016 release is the consummate pandemic film.
The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.
Arrival reframes the story of Louise Banks, a linguist who learns to see the future after decoding the palindromic language of aliens hovering in the earth’s atmosphere. On a professional level, her premonitions prevent a third World War. Louise was hired by the US government to communicate with the extraterrestrial beings — a conventional science-fiction premise she subverts by understanding that it’s the humans, and not the mysterious aliens, who must be stopped from destroying their own planet. But on a personal level, Louise’s recurring flashbacks — of a daughter she lost to an incurable disease — are in fact revealed to be premonitions of her own life. She has been seeing memories of her future all along.
This revelation makes for one of the great closings in modern cinema: a brooding montage of shots and thoughts, scored to Max Richter’s haunting ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’ and marked by perhaps the most visceral voiceover of our times. The gist is that despite knowing the journey, and where it leads, “I embrace it, and welcome every moment of it.” Louise becomes aware that a numbing tragedy awaits her, and she still decides to pursue this path. She chooses to experience destiny rather than deflect it, even at the cost of incurring the pain and wrath of her beloved.
Imagine a profound relationship drama about a couple who rear a child only for the man to discover that his wife led him towards their doomed fate despite knowing the outcome. But the enduring genius of Arrival is that this is not the film we see. What we see is essentially the past — the memories of this more direct and implied film — told through a public event that sets a private future into motion. It’s a narrative sleight of hand that is virtually unfilmable. Yet, director Denis Villeneuve creates his own distinct visual language, whose emotional immediacy is tailored to fit its literary source, Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella Story Of Your Life. This in turn transforms the discerning viewer into a linguist of sorts, immersed in the interpretation of intent.
More importantly it’s also an existential sleight of hand — one that has, in the last year, acquired a prophetic identity by transcending the confines of storytelling. True to its theme, Arrival itself seems like a premonition of a more tangible event. In Louise Banks’s challenge lie the echoes of a more recent crisis. In many ways, the 2016 release is the consummate pandemic film. It’s not so much the eerie politics of the premise, which incidentally features China as the nation withholding information in the face of mass destruction. Instead, the link is more individualistic — it has more to do with the resolution of the human mind than the conflict of humanity. It has more to do with the personality of change than the plurality of progress. Arrival uncovered a culture of healing almost four years before the world began bleeding.
Up until 2020, most of us evolved with a perpetual fear of consequence. We progressed with the persistent urge to confront, and control, the linearity of time. There were ambitions, goals, destinations, achievements and all the absolute things that defied the spontaneity of a future. We starred in our own relationship dramas, romantic comedies, dysfunctional family films, Shakespearean tragedies and cerebral thrillers. We headlined visible stories, films that were seen rather than implied, defined by our tussles with destiny. Everything we did was aimed at forecasting — and shaping — a sense of forwardness in order to reverse-engineer the present to reach there. Everything we planned was bereft of a sense of mortality; we moved at the pace of a forever, as though death were only a theoretical construct waiting for the end of every story.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been cripplingly public and physical, but its long-term legacy is psychological. The ‘arrival’ of the virus has done the work of 12 ominous spacecraft. On one hand, it has forced disparate people and nations to collaborate and unite to decipher the unknown. On the other, the global lockdown has become the definitive event of every life — a shared film that has set countless private futures into tangential motion. It’s become clear that the palindromic language of the pandemic is grief, which in turn has altered our linear perception of time. Now, not unlike Louise Banks, we are acutely aware of human mortality. We sense that death is real, tangible and close; it is an end that waits for no story. And yet, despite recognising the inevitability of tragedy, despite finally knowing that our years will amount to nothing, millions have chosen to follow fate. Millions have decided to embrace — and deeply feel — the journey. Millions have chosen to combine the certainty of living with the uncertainty of life.
We’ve had babies. We’ve moved to beaches and mountains. We’ve broken geographical shackles. We’ve woken at sunrise. We’ve moved in with partners and parents. We’ve bought that new cycle. We’ve seen that old waterfall. We’ve applied to that dream job. We’ve aced that prolonged exercise routine. We’ve tried that daunting diet. We’ve eaten our hearts out. We’ve visited that park near the house. We’ve taken those midnight strolls. We’ve met that distant neighbour. We’ve adopted that kitten. We’ve emailed that childhood friend. We’ve returned calls. We’ve gotten into short-term relationships without thinking twice. We’ve formed bonds despite knowing they will end.
We’ve lived differently, fully, selfishly and selflessly — but we have lived — even at the cost of incurring the wrath of our former selves. Under the garb of hostility, the pandemic has somewhat saved the planet from itself, and taught us the power to remember our own future. It has reminded us that surviving is choosing what to overcome. And that time is deciding when to forget.
This pandemic is always going to be the only film we see. History is being made, but it’s the past that’s being rewritten. This is where stories have started. This is where conclusions have begun. To paraphrase the film’s most luminous moment: we’ve had our heads tilted up to the stars for as long as we can recall. But what’s surprised us the most wasn’t meeting the virus. It was meeting ourselves.
Maybe it’s fitting that the movies imagined a linguist saving the world. After all, it’s only the sound of language — a single letter — that distinguishes a world from a word.
Read more from 'The Viewfinder' series here.
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