Based on the trailer alone, I thought Arrival was mostly about a band of alien ships arriving on Earth, our resulting attempts to communicate with them, and the threat of a global war. This is certainly the core of the film, but the storyline shares equal time with a second plot: the personal story of Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist played by Amy Adams.
It's risky for a sci-fi movie to pull the viewer into an unexpected commentary on the human experience. If the message feels heavy handed, hastily constructed, or cheesy, it can sink the rest of the film.
For me, Arrival didn't do that.
Banks' backstory surrounds the death of her daughter from a rare disease, and a marriage that fell apart from the resulting strain. The movie later reveals that what we assumed were flashbacks are actually foreshadowing; the aliens give her the ability to see the future. All of those distressing moments in her life haven't happened yet.
At the end of the movie, after Banks saves humanity, she faces a decision: Should she begin the relationship that leads to her daughter's birth, and premature death? Why, knowing the grief that lies ahead, would she choose the same future?
Putting aside the ethical debate of whether to give life to a human being doomed to prematurely suffer and die, the movie affirms a truism that I have only gradually come to realize myself: Life is not a means to an end.
Happiness, instead, is often found in small, unexpected moments, and a major part of being happy is the ability to recognize and embrace those moments when they occur. Through final flash-forward scenes, we see some of the warm moments that await Banks and her family-to-be, which juxtapose the sadness and lead her to choose the same path.
Whether or not director Denis Villeneuve set out to make this point explicitly—or whether it was expressed in the original short story by Ted Chiang—I'm not sure. But the sentiment, or something close to it, is surely there.
Amy Adams as Louise Banks in "Arrival"
Though Arrival's creators couldn't have predicted the world's current geopolitical state when they were making the movie, their release timing was stunningly prescient.
The aliens arrive in twelve, large, cylindrical probes scattered across the globe. The United States, China and Russia each play host to a ship, forcing the world's superpowers to grudgingly coordinate their efforts to make contact.
But a problem soon becomes apparent: Who speaks for Earth? And what happens if one nation makes an impulsive move, endangering the rest of humanity? It's an interesting question, and I don't recall any debate moderators asking Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump how they would handle such a scenario.
In a way, Arrival's plotline is more plausible than that of The Martian. Don't get me wrong; I thought The Martian was fantastic. But whenever I saw the beautiful spaceship Hermes, I wondered who had tripled NASA's budget. And now, with another possible moon-versus-Mars, commercial-versus-government human spaceflight scuffle on the horizon—as well as a potential funding slash for NASA—it's hard not to feel pessimistic about the chances of sending astronauts to Mars anytime soon.
Though Arrival is based on the unlikely probability that we will be contacted by aliens, it plays on the hope that a single precipitating event could alter the course of human history—hopefully for the better.
This also happens to be one of the reasons we explore our solar system and the universe. Could the discovery of past or present life beyond Earth have the same effect?