30 Days of Reviews: Arrival
This isn’t a review of a book, short story, or variety of tea. And like yesterday’s post, it will be longer than 300 words. But also like yesterday, fuck it.
I saw Arrival during its opening weekend, and I have had THOUGHTS. Many of those thoughts were positive, but they commingled with my continuing fear and outrage over what’s happening in the States right now about the election, and because of that, it’s taken me a long time to feel ready to write this.
You ready? Fair warning, here be spoilers.
Remember a few days ago when I was talking about the source material, Story of Your Life, and how I wasn’t sure how exactly it would be translated to the screen? I needn’t have worried. It totally works.
Story of Your Life starts with the main character, a linguist, talking to “you”, her child, about the circumstances surrounding your birth. It starts out like a “how your parents met” story. But eventually, you, the reader, realize that this narrative makes no sense because she’s also talking about how “you” are dead. How can you be the audience if you’re not even alive?
The linguist then discusses her role in helping to make first contact with an alien species, and the difficulties posed in deciphering their written language and vocalizations. This difficulty arises from the fact that as humans, we possess mirror symmetry. Our physiology physically locks us in to seeing the world from only one fixed point, and because we as a species can see only what is in front of us, everything else about our mindset is linear – our forms of writing, our perception of time, everything.
The aliens, having radial symmetry, effectively see everything happening around them at once. And that bleeds over into their language, which isn’t linear at all, either physically or in terms of its perception of time.
The twist is this: by being exposed to the alien’s language, the linguist develops a similar non-linear perception of time, where things happen simultaneously. And thus, the heartbreak: “you”, as the audience of the story, haven’t even been born yet. The linguist, your mother, knows this when she starts talking to you, and knows that you will die, and that it will hurt her.
And yet she chooses to have “you” anyway.
The amazing thing about Arrival is that the movie is faithful to the plot, and non-linearity of the source material. It holds up!
Of course, having known what would happen, my ability to be blind-sided by Denis Villeneuve’s directorial sleight-of-hand was muted. I knew the twist. I knew that the daughter that Amy Adams’s character, Louise, was narrating to had yet to be born.
But I still felt shaken by the implications: what does it mean to have a child? Furthermore, what does it mean when you are painfully, uniquely aware that you will watch your child die, and you can’t do a damn thing about it? Is it bravery to have that child, to willingly expose yourself to the pain of their mortality in order to feel that brief flame of joy?
And so we come to my existential crisis.
I am married. I’m over 30. I have no children, yet I’m aware that both my mother and my husband would like them to arrive in the future. I’m not too old to have them yet.
When I look at the world, at the mass die-offs of animals and the climate change tipping point, I ask myself this: is having a child irresponsible? Am I doing them a disservice by bringing them into a world so close to the edge through no fault of their own? What if they grow up and hate me for having been alive now, when things were good, and for my complacency in not working hard enough to make things better for them?
In the shadow of the election of Trump, these questions have intensified. What if I have a kid, and then a huge war starts? How can I protect them?
In Arrival, the protagonist knows the awful truth about her unborn child’s impending death, yet soldiers on anyway because that pain is commingled with love. And that hope has absolutely floored me, because I wonder if I am that brave.
Update: I got the director’s name wrong. It’s Denis Villeneuve, not Jacques. Thanks to Jen C. for the catch!