I went into Arrival mostly blind. I knew it was about aliens, language, and circles. What I did not know was that it was practically a love letter to Slaughterhouse-Five. It has been a minute and change since I read the book, but Arrival wears its heart on its sleeve in that regard. Additionally, I did not know that it was directed by one of my favorite auteurs, David Villeneuve. To fit with the circular theme, it all makes sense in retrospect.
To anyone even remotely familiar with Vonnegut, the heptapods bear more than just a visual similarity to the Tralfamadorians. Not only are they remarkably similar to human hands, they also seem to see in four dimensions. Louise is treated very differently than Billy was, however. Rather than keep her as some sort of zoo exhibit, the heptapods give Louise the “gift” of being unstuck in time in order to save themselves from some unnamed catastrophe in three thousand years. Whether this gift is a positive or negative thing for Louise is up for interpretation.
As mentioned earlier, Villeneuve quickly became one of my favorite directors. What I believe are his two strongest films, Enemy and Prisoners, share not only a quiet, melodramatic style that I am a total sucker for, but also a basic plot device with Arrival: re-contextualization. Like in Snowpiercer, these films are not the same when seen again. This is a tricky balance, however, and not even Villeneuve himself is free from pitfalls. The “twist” in Enemy was jarringly sudden, to the point of almost becoming self-parody. “Surprise your doppelganger’s wife is a giant spider!” Prisoners, too, suffers from pulling the rug out too quickly. It bears striking resemblance to an episode of Scooby-Doo. However, in Arrival I posit that Villeneuve has hit the perfect balance of hindsight narrative, weaving re-contextualization into the story itself.