What I remembered about Arrival (2016) is not liking it. I saw it in the theaters when it came out, drawn by some vague interest in the subject matter and the performers. I could not recall, before rewatching it recently since it is available for free on Amazon Prime, the reason for my dislike. And then the opening lines of the movie start coming at you, spoken by the protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams). They are something about beginnings or endings, and something else about not being bound by the order of time. Now, having checked on the International Movie Database (IMDb), I can confirm for you that it is not directed by Christopher “Time is Meaningless” Nolan. The only person to which time truly does not matter is God. Unlike the aliens in the film who do not have a concept of past, present, or future, we perceive things in a linear fashion. Doing otherwise is a tricky proposition, which is one of the main reasons why time travel stories so often spin off into the delirium of nonsense. So, there you have yet another treatise on my part as to why I do not like non-linear plots. Today’s film does not deal with time travel, at least not overtly, but it has all the annoying hallmarks a movie I find annoying.
We begin in Arrival with Louise seeing her daughter Hannah (played by several people that need not be enumerated given the brevity of their appearance) grow up and die of a rare disease. However, this has yet to happen. Confused yet? The movie will not help you because it transitions to a time before Louise has Hannah without giving you a clear indication of having done so. You never see a dad, so you would assume that the loneliness you see her dealing with is the result of losing her daughter. Apparently, this is just Louise, and she is devoted to her work as a professor of linguistics. We know this because we are treated to her going to class and walking into a largely empty classroom. The reason for the desertedness would have been apparent to her if she watched the news because aliens have come to Earth, parking their giant, comma-shaped vessels at various points around the planet. The United States has one, and it is in Montana. Nice. As is natural for anyone in such situations, the American government decides to try to communicate with the visitors. They send Colonel G. T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to recruit Louise to attempt to translate a fragment of a recording of what they assume is the alien language. Louise is then brought to the base surrounding the landing site when it becomes clear that she needs to be in contact with them in order to make any progress. She is joined there by nuclear physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is on hand to do the science stuff. Not long after they get to the burgeoning military camp, they are ushered into the alien ship, an opening into which is created at regular intervals. Louise is nervous, but she makes some headway on their first meeting, even naming the two representatives of the extraterrestrials Abbott and Costello. That does little to describe what they look like, unless I am gravely mistaken and the famous comedy duo were actually the result of an octopus mating with a tree. At any rate, her attempt to identify herself as human (as if they could read English) results in them squirting out a circular ink pattern, which is immediately determined to be their written language. Because there are other ships around the world, and they all seem to be related, the military is contact with other governments, which is being monitored by the obstinate Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) representative, Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). He reluctantly agrees to share what they have learned with the others, and soon other countries begin making their own discoveries. Unfortunately, the one who does not seem to think the aliens are there for peaceful reasons is General Shang (Tzi Ma) of China. After months of study and mastering the circular language (or logic) of the visitors’ writing, they finally are forced to arrive at the main question that has guided their efforts to this point: why are they here? The answer they are given is “offer weapon.” The other countries interpret this as a threat, and they all cease working with one another. Among the American soldiers are those take the perceived threat a little too seriously, and try to blow up the ship. This comes as China issues an ultimatum, saying they will use nuclear arms to destroy the alien vessels. Meanwhile, Louise is pleading with anyone that will listen that “tool” means simply that, and she finds it in the brain dump of words she had been given by Abbott and before the explosion. To stop the worst from happening, she steals a satellite phone and calls General Sheng to convince him to stand down. It works, and shortly thereafter, satisfied that they had gotten humanity to work together for a change, the extraterrestrials depart. As the base is being broke down in the wake of the departure (get it?), Ian professes his love for Louise.
The part of Arrival that I did not discuss are the non-linear parts. Interspersed throughout the dealings with the aliens are visions that Louise is given of her daughter. Now, since we had already been introduced to Hannah, you might think while watching it that they are all memories that aspects of her interactions with Abbott and Costello drudge up from her brainpan. By the end, though, you realize that no, these are her seeing the future. This seems silly, but there is a positive spin on it that I will discuss from a Catholic perspective. One of the last things that is revealed to her is the fact that she will marry Ian and that Hannah will pass away from an incurable disease. What the film does well is to build up the close and loving relationship between mother and daughter. This is done so the non-Catholics who do not believe in the sanctity of all life can have a reason to say, well, I am glad she did not have an abortion, or not bother with the pregnancy in the first place. Okay, I have no idea whether that entered into their thinking, but a guy can speculate. It also brings up a moral dilemma, for some. If you knew that a person, particularly a young girl, is going to die of a terrible disease before living a full life, would you still go through with giving that person any life? It is not an easy choice to make. Then again, life itself is not easy. Faith is about the joy of a life with Christ, but also about getting through the difficulties. Louise makes the Catholic choice. Ian, on the other hand, makes the other one. At one point, Louise remarks to Hannah that Ian left her because she made the choice to go through with all this despite knowing the inevitable outcome. He could not bear facing losing his child, which is why this is not an easy question to answer. That is why it is great that we do not have the kind of information with which Louise is burdened. For the rest we can trust that God will take care of it and us.
Had Arrival simply presented the Hannah subplot as having taken place before the, er, arrival of the aliens, it would have made more sense, at least in terms of the way the story is told. Some rewriting would be required, namely changing the lesson learned to be accepting what happened to her daughter rather than having to live with an awful truth. It has slightly more impact the way it is, but one always wonders about people with such knowledge and whether they should do things differently. Hence, the movie is annoying. And slow. And . . . snore.