A closer look at… Arrival

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The Scoop – An eerie, atmospheric sci-fi story which packs an emotional punch

When twelve silent, monolithic alien spaceships touch down at twelve locations across the planet, humanity is thrown into chaos. Nobody knows what the aliens want, and whether they are dangerous. In Montana, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to try and find a way of talking to these extraterrestrial visitors.

Working against the clock, under the suspicious eye of the FBI and of Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise and Ian must decipher the strange symbols which the aliens use to communicate. As the tension mounts and global war threatens, Louise finds that her immersion in this new language is changing her in unexpected ways.

Our Take

This quiet, beguiling film takes a science fiction staple – the arrival of alien visitors on earth – and then declines to go in the direction we might expect. There are no explosions (well, alright, there is one), very few guns, and only the odd glimpse of global carnage. The monsters themselves remain largely hidden in the mist. Our focus is on the face of Amy Adams: tired, determined, illuminated with wonder.

Don’t read too much about Arrival before you go and see it, because the story’s gentle rug-pull in the third act needs to be experienced firsthand. We’re left haunted by some timely questions about empathy, about reaching out towards the Other, and about the painful choices we must make in order to truly live.

The questions below contain plot spoilers.

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Dig Deeper

  • What were you expecting when you went to see the film, and did it live up to your expectations? What other films would you compare it to?
  • How did you react to Amy Adams’ central performance? What qualities did she bring to the character of Louise?
  • What did the film’s cinematography and sound add to your experience? Were there any visual moments, or moments from the soundtrack, which particularly struck you? How would you describe Arrival‘s overall atmosphere?
  • What did you think of the film’s special effects, including the design of the spaceships, and of the Heptapods themselves?

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Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict. – Louise

  • How does Louise approach opening up communication with the Heptapods? Why does she believe that they need to see her without her hazmat suit on, and why do she and Ian give them nicknames? What do you think are the key components of good communication?
  • Have you ever tried to communicate with someone whose life experiences or point of view were completely ‘alien’ to your own? What did you find helpful, and what got in the way? How effectively do you think the film captured this experience?
  • What does the film have to say about the power of language, both to connect us and to come between us? In what sense can language be a ‘weapon’? Can you think of some recent real-life examples of language being used as a weapon?
  •  How do Louise and Ian’s aims clash with the aims of the military and the FBI throughout the film? What points might the filmmakers be making about our tendency to react defensively in the face of the unknown, and the damage this can do?

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  • How, and why, is Louise so deeply affected by her immersion in the Heptapod language? What do you think of the idea – known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis –  that language actually shapes how we think and how we view the world? What deeper implications might this idea have?

Are you dreaming in their language? – Ian

  • How did you react to the film’s twist? Did you see it coming, or were you surprised? How did it re-shape your understanding of the story?
  • What did you think of Louise’s choice to embrace her future, despite knowing where it would lead? Do you think she made the right choice, and would you have done the same in her place?
  • At the end of the film, Louise asks Ian whether he would have made different choices in his life, if he’d been able to see the future. How would you answer this question in relation to your own life?  How can we learn to make peace with the certainties and the uncertainties of our own futures?

Published by

Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.

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