The following contains spoilers for the ending of Arrival (2016) and assumes the reader has seen the film. If you haven’t, go do so immediately. If you have, might I suggest some background music while you read? I don’t know, maybe this?
In a meaningless discussion of semantics, I would argue that the “twist” in Arrival isn’t really a twist so much as the fulfillment of a promise. The movie poses a question (“why are they here?”); the characters spend the run-time trying to answer that question; and Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finally arrives (heh) at the answer. Regardless of how surprising and revelatory that answer may be, it’s still just the movie holding up its end of the bargain in the implicit contract it made with the audience, that the posed question will be answered.
Whether you want to call it a “twist” or a “third-act reveal” or (more accurately) a “slowly unraveling mystery that gradually reveals itself from the very first line to the very last”, what makes the reveal effective is how much it propagates through the rest of the story. It’s more than showing that the prologue is actually the epilogue; it’s that there are no prologues and epilogues. There is just the story as it happens, and “before” and “after” are useless qualifiers.
It’s crucial that we see the ups and downs (especially the downs) of Louise’s motherhood “before” we see the genesis of it, because Louise does too. Becoming a parent is often a purposeful decision that people come to carefully, but very few would-be parents take the leap knowing ahead of time that it will end with indescribable sorrow and suffering, which makes Louise’s decision all the more illuminating. She chooses to put herself (and her daughter) through the worst pain imaginable — and in fact “embraces every moment” — because, to put it simply, it’s worth it. She similarly chooses to be with Ian (Jeremy Renner) despite knowing it will end in a painful separation, again, because it’s worth it.
The ending of Arrival hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to say I cried a lot (because, seriously, why would I be?). I’m sure part of it was due to the fact that a movie urging us to set aside our differences and unite in cooperation was probably something I needed to see after a divisive election days earlier (Amy Adams’ pleading line to Michael Stuhlbarg “We need to talk to each other!” might as well have been screamed directly into the face of 90% of Americans). Part of it was due to me being deeply moved by the idea that, in a world where brinkmanship and doomsday clocks have been the order of the day for decades, the world is saved by words (vis-a-vis diplomacy with General Shang and in the literal sense of the heptapod’s language giving Louise, a linguist, the time-perception power to execute that diplomacy). But I think it was mostly just that I thought Louise’s decisions — both to be with Ian and to bring Hannah into the world — were a tragic and achingly beautiful metaphor.
Even without knowledge of the heptapod language and the powers therein, every one of us makes a similar decision. Part of the human condition is knowing that our life is going to end someday, and that it will almost certainly include pain and suffering, if not for us then for the ones we love, and yet we choose to live anyway. Because life is worth it. Love is worth the pain and hardship. Arrival is so convinced of that, it pins love against the most difficult and punishing life experience one can have, and Louise still picks love.
[And yes, I just published a 28-minute video on Boyhood, so I realize I’ve probably leaned on the term “human condition” wayyyy too much this past week, and I don’t want to turn into The Boy Who Cried Human Condition, but come on — choosing to live despite knowing we’re going to die? That shit’s textbook.]
Arrival is a clever, patient, life-affirming, meticulously constructed gift to science fiction canon on the level of Blade Runner (the long-awaited sequel to which is coincidentally director Denis Villeneuve’s next project). The circular structure of the film is not only a nice homage to the heptapods’ language (and therefore their reality), but it allows the audience to share in Louise’s unique, non-linear journey through Hannah’s story. And while that’s all well and good, these implications of the revealed non-linearity are what set it apart, inviting us to ponder these impossibly heavy ideas as the credits roll.
Science Fiction has always been a useful tool for social and political commentary (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Brazil, Children of Men, District 9, etc) but the more significant, lasting impact is usually in regards to the questions that sci-fi raises about humanity. What characteristics define our humanity (Blade Runner)? How far have we evolved, how much further will we evolve, and what is mankind’s ultimate place in the universe (2001: A Space Odyssey)? At what point does the technology we yield become an irresponsible rebuff of the natural order (Jurassic Park)? Is free will worth the destruction and mayhem it can cause (A Clockwork Orange)?
“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
In Louise’s case, no. Because love is worth the pain that comes with it.