“Arrival” Isn’t a Horror Movie but it’s Terrifying in its Own Right
Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival had been on my list for quite some time before I finally settled into it yesterday. Though I’d seen the trailers boasting Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark cinematography and I’d heard about Amy Adams’ superb performance (no surprise here that she dazzled me, as always), I had not read any spoilers about the film and was therefore shocked at the extent to which it flipped so many of my expectations.
Arrival’s world is a bleak and mysterious one. Even Louise’s (Adams) spectacular home seems perennially dark and her fondest, most beautiful memories of her daughter are touched with a bluish Ozark-like tint. Everything in the film boils down to its themes of existential anxiety and the promise of eventual death — for Louise’s daughter, for humanity, and even for the immense heptapods.
Furthermore, the motif of unwelcome foreign invasion permeates even the most real-world aspects of Arrival. Louise’s daughter, Hannah, for instance, dies of a rare disease that appears to be some sort of cancer. The heptapods are not the only foreign invaders in this film — this pattern is present even in Louise’s interactions with the creatures, when they invade her thoughts with their black, squid-like ink.
Villeneuve and Chiang’s (Ted Chiang wrote the short story Arrival is based on, called Story of Your Life) reimagination of what an alien invasion might look like is post-modern and minimalistic. The space shuttles, for instance, are dark, shadow-like semi-circles that we only come to recognize as flying saucers at the end, when they turn on their sides and eventually disintegrate. Visual choices like this one contain elements of classic, Cold War-era sci-fi film, but Arrival’s space shuttles are updated for modern audiences who are by now desensitized to the flashing lights and indecipherable technology of aliens à la The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951). After decades of the same tropes about aliens, we now need something darker, unfamiliar, and more ominous to elicit uncertainty or dread.
For this reason, much about the heptapods’ saucers remains unexplained. There is no exposition scene that explains the laws of gravity inside the saucers (sometimes characters can stand; other times they float), how the military knows how to enter them, or what exactly the “screen” is between where the humans stand and where the aliens live. Furthermore, there is a tremendous incongruity between what the ship’s size appears to be from the outside and what it actually is on the inside. How big are these ships, exactly? And perhaps most baffling, how do these tremendous heptapods manage to fit inside such seemingly slim structures?
Very little is explained for us in this film, and that is what makes it so unnerving. Indeed, I have seen it listed with other horror films of this cinematic generation such as The Witch (Eggers, 2015), It Follows (Mitchell, 2015), and The Babadook (Kent, 2014). Although Arrival is certainly not a horror film itself, it is predicated on fear and existential dread. Villeneuve provides us with piecemeal information — just enough for us to cling loosely to this multi-layered, nonlinear narrative, but presented in a manner that inevitably leaves us just as disoriented as the cinematography within the space shuttle does.
In short, Arrival sets its tone by letting its visuals, its haunting soundtrack, and its actors’ subtle physicality do the talking. And the sum of these parts amounts to a core human fear: a nihilistic sense of meaninglessness, in terms of both our individual lives and our species as a whole. Arrival suggests that our lives are out of our control. After all, the heptapods demonstrate to Louise what Einstein told us decades ago: That time is nonlinear. The past, present, and future are happening to us simultaneously, on planes just out of our reach and far beyond our understanding. We perceive time as linear for our own sanity — a quality which seems to unravel for Louise as the heptapods drop visions of the future into her mind. Arrival, once again, is not a horror film, but it belongs in the same conversation as its horror counterparts precisely because of its exploration of our universal temporal/existential nightmare.
My final note on this film is its political context. Marketed and released in the shadow of the 2016 presidential election that Donald Trump infamously won, Arrival calls into question the solidity of the American government as well as international diplomacy. At one point, Agent Halpern (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) tells Louise, “We’re a world with no single leader,” and his words carry meaning beyond the story’s alien invasion and even beyond the film itself. As the global community transitions from solidarity to stubborn individualism, I cannot help but think of the seemingly impenetrable world of international relations and the impossible process of creating and enforcing global agreements.
I was also equal parts intrigued and amused by the global powers mentioned in the film and the way they reacted to the heptapods’ invasion. China, for instance, is the first nation to settle on aggression against the aliens and its military leader, General Shang, belligerently resists any talks of peace. At the same time, the Russian government kills one of its own in order to retain the security of government information. This struck me as more than coincidental for a movie released in the midst of controversy over a possible (and, alas, eventual) trade war with China as well as concern over Russia’s secrecy and its handling of information. The only other countries named as particularly aggressive and uncooperative as the film heads to its climax are Pakistan and Sudan, both of whom have also had strained relations with the United States over the past decade over concerns of terrorism and national security. Arrival’s grounding in contemporary politics is not unique (see Melani McAlister’s analyses of American films on the Middle East), but what struck me is Villeneuve’s subtle handling of international relationships and the attention he gave to the disparate concerns over each of these countries.
The United States military, by contrast, is characterized as warlike and misogynistic. Leaders constantly talk down to Louise even when asking for her expertise when the heptapods first arrive. They belittle her, question her conclusions, and override her decisions, making this movie in many ways a classic story of men mansplaining to an intelligent, qualified woman in the workplace (let us note that Rebecca Solnit coined the term “mansplaining” just two years before this film came out and, once again, that Arrival hit theaters in the wake of the Clinton-Trump debates).
The American military also makes the decision to bomb the inside of the heptapods’ saucer while Louise and Ian (played by Jeremy Renner) are in it. This epitomizes the brash American cowboy trope that defines how Americans are received and portrayed internationally. In fact, it reminded me of the way Americans are characterized in Eye of the Sky (Hood, 2014): Valuing violence over communication, fully aware of yet apathetic to the potentially tragic consequences of their hasty decisions.
Americans are also portrayed in both films as painfully arrogant, exemplified most potently in Arrival when Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) referred to Europeans as “a more advanced race” than Australian Aborigines. Although in saying this he implied that the heptapods were more advanced than humans, his military position and combative attitude against the heptapods implies that he still believed in the potential of American military superiority. His words also demonstrated his belief in Western (in this case, read: white) superiority over indigenous peoples — an ironic and baffling thing for a Black character to say.
It is not hard to understand why Arrival made Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. It is not only a compelling exploration of what first contact might look like in today’s America, but it also sheds light on the political, social, and existential undercurrents that haunt the contemporary psyche. While the film’s nonlinear plot structure was intriguing and thematically appropriate, my only complaint is that it made the film exhausting to follow at times. This is its chief flaw, though this complexity and the intellectual endurance it calls for does, admittedly, make the ending all the more satisfying — and all the more terrifying.