If all the world’s a stage and actions speak louder than words and acting is reacting…
Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, defines nations and individuals alike by their reactions.
How do you react to the unknown? To that for which there is zero precedent?
When a dozen sprawling alien ships that are basically the visual equivalent of the Inception noise arrive on Earth they bring with them no evidence of intention. The ships hover motionless over seemingly random locales across the planet, their monolithic exteriors betraying nothing. They offer no evidence of friendship, aside from not instantly eradicating the entire planet, and they offer no evidence of hostility.
But they’re big. They’re alien. And they’re here.
How do you react? How do we react?
It’s a broad question, one with a breadth that allows Arrival to feel as much spiritual and philosophical as sociological and political. The film simplifies the vastness of the answer by boiling people, mobs and countries alike down into two groups: those who react with caution and those who react with curiosity, or, those who begin t0 plan their defense and those who begin to plan their syllabus.
The latter course of action, the pursuit of knowledge in the face of the unknown, yields what Arrival proves can be an even more daunting question: how do you react to certainty?
Whether we are responding to a concrete certainty or the utterly unknown, humans are not creatures who can react perfectly. We react as best we can under the circumstances and information afforded to us. Arrival, despite its run-of-the-mill, war-mongering fictional world leaders, ultimately presents humanity in an endearing, if not entirely favorable, light. The Earth beneath those twelve vessels isn’t one divided into tribes or warring factions or nations, it’s a planet of seven billion people each trying their best to react to all of the unknowns and certainties of life with the circumstances and information afforded to them.
Science fiction at its most affecting often comments on the human condition, and Arrival is no different. For all it’s space monoliths, mind-bending writing (Eric Heisserer) and aggressive theremin (Johann Johannsson), Arrival arrives at a terrestrial, eloquent point: even quarantined off into demographics and countries and continents we’re united by the human experience of reacting to a universe beyond our control.