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Arrival is a work of cycles and loops in its playing around with time in the non-linear format director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer employ to masquerade the film’s ultimate message, which is uncovered in the film’s final narrative twist. This being that protagonist Louise Banks has not yet had her daughter, who we see become terminally ill and eventually pass away in the film’s heart-breaking opening montage and has only become aware of this through the aliens’ gift to the planet of their non-linear understanding of life. Then, knowing her own timeline through this, she accepts this future knowing all the tragedy it will cause her, but willing to take part and wholly embrace it for the happiness it will bring her in between. This is gradually unfolded throughout the film with Amy Adams’ subtle facial expressions in reaction shots to flash-forwards which she makes us believe are flashbacks.
The film is shrouded in a calm mystery against the backdrop of Louise’s humane outreach to the recently arrived aliens. The film often works in contrasts with Louise’s passive nature setting her apart from the confusion and outrage around her to show Arrival’s display of human message for compassion and understanding. This technique is cleverly shown in the final minutes with Villeneuve’s visuals, showing the parallels in which their sci-fi conventions are embedded with the reusing of the same wide shot of Louise’s living room set to the same score of Max Richter’s harrowing On the Nature of Daylight, which itself has a palindromic structure.
It is an incredibly solemn end to a film marketed as an alien invasion thriller as the film lends itself to more thoughtful sci-fi like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind rather than popcorn flicks like Independence Day. The comparison to Eternal Sunshine is most befitting in that there is a decision from either protagonist of the films where they know that there is a scenario where they will be unhappy but yet they choose to think more positively by thinking of all the moments in between with the ones they love even if they will leave them. However, Eternal Sunshine’s unhappier ending was rejected in favour of the thoughtful open-ended one that smartly leaves things up for interpretation that works well for their look at the complicated conditions of love. For Louise, however, her love for Hannah is completely unconditional and this makes Arrival’s ending all the more upsetting as Arrival’s strength lies in its examination of the self-destructive acts we commit for happiness.
Throughout the film we see Louise as a rational, thoughtful and level-headed protagonist, as every scene within the pod is brought together by her knowledge in the field of linguistics and a majority of the progress they make is due to her passionate work. However, if you are familiar with any of Villeneuve’s other work you will know the humanity with which he presents his characters, like the children’s football game amidst the drug war in Sicario and the father-daughter relationship within Blade Runner 2049’s harsh dystopia. Villeneuve finds the human emotion in hectic, tense environments no matter which genre he is using, and he knows the flawed way in which we act whether we’re fueled by anger, remorse or compassion. We watch Louise’s journey through the same lens and although she has been the most logical character in the film and we’ve seen her distress at losing her daughter in the film’s opening minutes, at the end as her husband asks if she wants to have a baby, we completely understand and believe her decision when she wholeheartedly says, "Yes."