When aliens visit Earth a race begins to discover their intentions. Are they here to share their technology or do they wish us harm? This is the question Louise Banks hopes to figure out by decoding their sophisticated language.
The story revolves around the central mystery of the alien language and humanity’s response to their arrival. By making hasty decisions, without attempting to understand them, people are pandering to fear and reacting with a conflict-based solution. Should we talk to the aliens, to figure out their real motivation for visiting and hope to arrive at a peaceful understanding — or annihilate them?
This is really a story about gender: roles, behaviour, and expectations. Louise seeks to communicate and rationalise, while the male (military) response is based on fear and violence. Louise also breaks away from female stereotypes — women who react emotionally, and ‘woman’s intuition’ — by displaying rational intellect and common sense. The alien language is venerated as a valuable tool for humanity. Language has the power of gifting awareness and self-transcendence, so that humanity can ‘arrive’. It performs both a metaphorical role and a special plot-related function.
With an emphasis on communication and language the ultimate answer to the challenge Louise faces is explored through psychological tension rather than purely dramatic action. Being a film about ‘female’ problem solving skills — conflict resolution — rather than macho violence, the physical action is mainly perpetrated by the ‘bad guys’: renegade military types who are paranoid or otherwise ignorant of the truth. Arrival is a feminist story about a woman who solves a problem through the peaceful application of intellect — by grasping and coming to terms with long-term consequences and, in the face of this, doing what is right. For Louise, this means making value-based judgements: appreciating the big picture. Louise is a special person because she values a long-term view of humanity’s future.
The representation of the military as fixed thinking, using fear-based solutions that lead to violence, suggests that humanity’s answers lie with thinkers and academics rather than generals and politicians. The behaviour of the ‘military industrial complex’ echoes the soldiers in The Abyss who also react to the unknown with the threat of violence. In parallel to Louise’s requirement to communicate with the aliens, she must also get through to a top ranking Chinese military official, to persuade him not to attack an alien spacecraft. Once again, she literally uses language to solve the problem.
The limitation of the story is that the aliens remain behind a sheet of glass, obscured within the misty confines of their gaseous atmosphere. We never get to meet them, and this feels unsatisfactory. We do learn the purpose of their visit, but it feels like a footnote in the story compared to Louise’s incredible decoding achievement. Arrival celebrates a female hero solving a global dilemma through lateral thinking and rationally analysis — peaceful means. It’s also a warning about reacting to the unknown with violence.