Alien beings visit Earth with an urgent message, but they don’t know how to say the message in a language we would understand, and we can’t understand their language. We must communicate with them before those among us who would destroy what they don’t understand gain the upper hand. The film Arrival is a story about communication and connection and common bonds.
It moved me more than any other film since E.T. The Extraterrestrial 40 years earlier — why, I wonder? A more objective viewer might agree that it’s a fine story and well told, but why did I place it on the shelf of my five favorite films and my favorite among those I have seen since we crossed the imaginary timeline into the 21st century?
What makes one story more moving than the others?
Several answers suggested themselves as I stared down that question. The twist when we realize the nature of “this child” who haunts the doctor’s thoughts. The exploration of how we connect and communicate. I do love a good story about the nature of time. Could it be something as I like Amy Adams — but then, why this Amy Adams movie as opposed to the others? The others in my Big 5 — It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and E.T. — explore alternate realities, the “what might have been.” There is a fine love in George and Mary, Rick and Ilsa, Eliot and E.T., an intriguing love growing in Arrival, and of course Dorothy loves her traveling companions in her innocent way. Love, then, needs to drive the story in some way.
But how did these five films reach so deep into my heart/soul? Timing has something to do with it: I first saw Wonderful Life on a night when I felt nearly as despairing as George Bailey. I first saw Casablanca with a large audience also seeing it for the first time, and the shared burst of emotion at “Round up the usual suspects” is part of why I love the film.
I could decide the “why” isn’t important — just say, “I don’t know why, I just love these stories” — but if I knew the why, if I could dissect the reasons, maybe I could write my own stories that reach into hearts and souls. Or does that sort of clinical examination, analyzing structure and themes and all, reduce the joy and surgically remove the heart of it all?
Maybe I am moved by the stories because they are so real in their alternate-reality way. I know I love Arrival because it genuinely surprised me — that moment when it became suddenly obvious that this was not just a story about communicating with aliens, it’s about the choices we make at the risk of our hearts.
What a miracle that we have these ways to connect and communicate across the generations and across the miles. It becomes a sort of shorthand, not unlike “Love me, love my dog.” Our reaction to these stories tells us about each other. If we love the same books or films or music, that love becomes a starting point. This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.