Entertainment

‘Arrival’ Turns Alien Visitation on Its Head

Hard to believe, but the sci-fi storyline exposes very real and rich emotions

Somewhat lost in the year-end barrage of “important” films is “Arrival,” from screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve, which stands out as one of the year’s best films.

It is not only well-executed science fiction, but it uses the sci-fi storyline to provide an emotionally crushing observation about grief. Additionally, broader interpretations might offer proactive conservatives ways of reaching out to liberals — because the film’s conceit is about language and communication.

There’s a new opportunity for conservatives to communicate with the alien species known as “liberals.”

Most sci-fi tropes regarding alien visitations are cast aside in “Arrival,” which is another reason the film succeeds. The aliens’ intentions are unclear. Yet rather than either side shooting first and asking questions later, the nations of the world decide to work together in an uneasy alliance to figure out how to communicate with this new species.

And the species is all too happy to do its part.

Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a melancholy woman apparently in mourning over the death of her child from a terminal illness.  She is drafted by the military for her linguistic expertise to try to make sense of the strange symbols the aliens use to communicate.

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What lifts “Arrival” even further above most science fiction stories, however, is that the very process of communicating with the aliens requires this woman to subconsciously enter their reality — something known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” In other words, being dropped into a foreign country allows someone to learn the language because of the reality and modes of thought they’ve been dropped into — so one might learn to speak Cambodian because of the specific way people live and think in Cambodia.

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It is here that the film delivers its brilliant thematic twist. These aliens exist simultaneously in all periods of time, rather than one fixed point of time, as we do. By entering their reality, Banks is able to experience past, present, and future simultaneously.

It is in that state that we realize (spoiler alert!) that her daughter has not, in the story we are viewing, even been born yet. She is having flash-forwards of having a child, who subsequently dies.

Grief is not something our culture handles well, because we’ve placed more emphasis on development of the mind rather than of the heart — of feelings and emotion. Grief instead becomes something that isn’t discussed very much. Those who have lost someone are often unintentionally isolated, because friends don’t know what to say or do — and many don’t want to be around someone who has been so close to death.

“Arrival” makes grief a real, palpable reality. It brings us into Banks’ heart and the loss she is feeling that she can’t quite make sense of, since it hasn’t happened yet. But the film also demonstrates a touching understanding of the nature of grief, in much the same way that Atom Egoyan’s masterful “The Sweet Hereafter” did.

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When someone dies, those close to the deceased often find themselves living in the past, present, and future simultaneously. There is a spectrum of temporal emotions: We recall the past when the person was alive; we live in the present that is devoid of the person’s presence; and we imagine a future without this person. Time, in many ways, ceases to exit for those in mourning. Grief is something so difficult to capture visually, yet Villeneuve does so with “Arrival.”

Yet there are two other points worthy of note about this exceptional film. It comes at a time when the Left is in mourning over the electoral victory of Donald Trump. This creates an opportunity for conservatives to approach and communicate with the alien species known as “liberals.”

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With grief comes fear and vulnerability. Out there in the world are liberals who are at a loss, and still searching for answers. That creates an opening to communicate, to let them express their fears and to demonstrate to them that those fears are unfounded — and to educate them more about conservative beliefs.

Finally, there is likely an unintended message here about abortion, of all things. Despite learning that Banks has not yet had a child, but that she will — and that her child will have a terminal illness and die — she decides to have the child anyway. It’s quite the allegory for those who seek to terminate pregnancies because of the discovery of Down syndrome or some other genetic flaw.

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