This post contains spoilers about the ending of the film Arrival.
The masterful sci-fi film Arrival is ultimately a story about communication. It follows the linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she tries to connect with a race of aliens who’ve landed spacecraft all over the globe for some mysterious purpose. But Louise’s most crucial breakthrough isn’t with the seven-legged, squid-like “Heptapods” that have come to speak with humans. It’s with the Chinese government—in particular, the stoic General Shang (Tzi Ma), who brings his country to the brink of war with the aliens out of his fear that they pose a threat. In the film’s arresting climax, with the help of Heptapod technology that lets Louise simultaneously glimpse the present and future, she calls Shang and gets his attention by telling him something she couldn’t possibly know: his wife’s dying words.
In Arrival, the motivations of the visiting Heptapods are vague—they simply tell Louise they will need humanity’s help to avert a great crisis thousands of years from now. But their strange written language, when properly learned, allows the speaker to experience time in a non-linear way and access all past, present, and future moments at the same time. In bringing this language to Earth, the Heptapods are doing more than granting the planet an incredible new technology: They’re also seeding humankind with empathy, pushing them together, distributing their language in pieces to different countries and demanding they cooperate to assemble it. It’s an extraordinarily hopeful message for a particularly grim moment in global affairs, where isolationism and nationalism are on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere.