Arrival’s Ending and Sci-Fi’s Twist Tradition

By  · Published on November 14th, 2016

Arrival joins its ancestors with a life-affirming wallop.

There’s little question that Arrival uses aliens as a cover up for a much more personal story. The science-fiction film from Sicario director Denis Villeneuve follows the exploits of a linguistics specialist and her journey to discover why aliens have visited the Earth. Some audiences are crying foul over the smoke and mirrors reveal in the final act, but some of the best science-fiction movies throughout time have big surprises.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has carefully constructed the groundwork for Arrival. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter are shown throughout the various stages of their life together. It has a feeling very reminiscent of Disney Pixar’s Up, showcasing the good and the bad, ending with the death of Louise’s daughter. From then on, we are led to believe that the events unfolding on the screen are happening after the death, not considering for a second that that is a glimpse of what is yet to come. The key of the cinematic trickery is not a “got you” moment, but it is there to give Louise an impossible decision. The payoff is what she ultimately decides to do with her life, now that she has seen how it unfolds.

Arrival isn’t the first science-fiction story to feature a big reveal in the final moments. One of the most beloved movies of all-time, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back has a last act that shatters initially perceived notions as well. Before that scene, the narrative was largely invested in the fight for the galaxy between the Republic and the Rebel Alliance. Then all the sudden it turns into a family drama, with a son having to possibly commit patricide.

Countless other science-fiction movies have featured big twists, but remain in the good will of cinephiles. Planet of the Apes, The Thing, and Blade Runner all have endings that make audiences question everything they’ve seen before. Perhaps most prevalent to the discussion is Blade Runner, which will see Villeneuve directing the sequel Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner has Harrison Ford playing the protagonist Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” whose job it is to hunt and destroy Replicants (for all intents and purposes: androids). What becomes curious is that he has many of the same traits as the Replicants he is hunting. It has always been debated as to whether or not Deckard is a Replicant, but not simply for the surprise, but because of the ramifications to the character and narrative.

Arrival uses the reveal of Louise’s future to make her aware of events and ultimately she decides to see them through. It continues the rich tradition of science-fiction that seemingly tells one particular story, but in essence is focusing on a far more personal journey. Was there a war in Star Wars? Yes. Although that is far from the most intriguing narrative. The Skywalker family is much more satisfying. Does Deckard successfully hunt down the Replicants? Yes, but what has he discovered in the process. These are movies that betray expectations, but have been done in such a way as to expand the confines of the story, not diminish them.

Science Fiction loves to use smoke and mirrors to tell stories that are different from perception. Arrival is more of art house movie than an all-out war. It is also about the relationship of people and immensely difficult decisions, than it is about aliens. Audiences shouldn’t be too upset if they were tricked by Arrival’s big twist. That shocked feeling could overshadow what is one of the most thought provoking and emotional finales in some time.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.