Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Films of 2016: Arrival

[Spoilers abound. Swim at your own risk.]

The 2016 science fiction movie Arrival concerns many fascinating ideas, but two, in particular, stand-out as being particularly intriguing or noteworthy, especially given our current national and historical context. 

The first such notion involves a cornerstone of communication studies: The Sapir-Whorf Theory.

Broadly-speaking, there are two readings of this particular hypothesis, but Professor Betty Byrne explains the hypothesis best in an interview at Slate with Melissa Martinelli, from November of 2016:
There are two ways of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and scholars have argued over which of these two Sapir and/or Whorf actually intended.
The weaker version is linguistic relativity, which is the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview. “Different language communities experience reality differently.”
The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it.
What is being discussed here, specifically?
No less than the idea that the code (language) that we use to express our philosophy of the universe actually shapes our philosophy of the universe. 
Denis Villenueve’s Arrival, as I noted in a response to a blog reader yesterday, actually name-checks Sapir-Whorf in the film’s dialogue. Much is made in the film of the notion that separate nation-states (with individual ideologies) attempt to teach the aliens to speak meaningfully to humans. 
But since each nation-state -- China, Russia, etc. -- possesses a different code, and a different understanding behind the code, each will define terms like “weapon,” or “war” in a very different way. For the alien learners, this is a problem. 
Will they learn that human life is a competition? A game? A battle? Or a “non-zero sum game?”
In discussing the ways that language can shape reality, Arrival eerily forecasts, the “post truth,” “fake news” world we live in now, in 2017. If those in power here view America as weak, being taken advantage of by shadowy foreign governments, and experiencing “carnage,” do they risk shaping America into the very dystopia they describe and fear?  Is our reality being re-shaped on Twitter, 140 characters at a time?
The second idea of value in Arrival is much more personal. It concerns the path one must choose once the mind has become open to new ideas. 
One can either embrace those ideas -- and move forward into a larger, more nuanced world -- or  one can attempt to deny what has been learned, and fall back on old outdated perceptions; essentially ignoring all new input.
If understanding the code of another culture can open up new doorways, reliance or dependence on the old code, the familiar one that formed our cultural understanding, can result in slammed doors. The response to understanding the world better is then, in those instances, a retreat into a bubble of confirmation bias, or pre-existing beliefs.
Arrival -- following on in the tradition of Solaris (1972), or even the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) premiere episode, “Emissary” -- comments meaningfully on the human condition, and its limitations regarding perception of time. What the aliens teach us in the film goes against the familiar code our language has established regarding chronology. 
What if there isn’t a past, present or future? What if time is non-linear…a circle?
And if time is non-linear -- if there is no past/present/future -- what does this new understanding of reality do to our concrete understandings of birth and death, mortality and the afterlife?
Interstellar (2014) from Christopher Nolan was likely the last big-budget cerebral science fiction film to play so cleverly with our understanding of time, but Arrival is an even stronger, smarter film, in part, because of the lead character’s humanity, and relatability.
Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks sees her conscious altered by contact with an alien race -- the Heptapods -- but the change doesn’t make her immortal, or allow her to escape the bounds of reality.  Instead, it permits her, touchingly, to better perceive time, and contextualize a tragic experience in her life. What she realizes, finally, is something amazing, and beautiful. The startling manner in which the film permits her self-discovery to unfold actually reflects the nature of the discovery itself. 
In this case, form has reflected and augmented thematic content, and -- as you know -- I believe that equation is the highest virtue of filmmaking: the ability of an image to echo, mirror or encapsulate for audiences the point of the narrative, or increase our understanding of it.
Thrilling and smart, Arrival is also filed with unforgettable imagery, not the least of which involves the visualization of the alien vessels, and their placement on our terrestrial landscapes. The design of the Heptapod ship, too, seems to suggest the something vital about the alien nature, and their way of understanding reality.
In short, Arrival, like its lead character, Louis Banks, plays a “non-zero sum game.” 
A non-zero sum game is a situation, in game theory in particular, in which one player’s gain or loss does not necessarily equate to the other player’s loss.
The aliens, the terrestrial combatants, and the individual lead characters all undertake in Arrival an encounter that changes them and forces them to grow in surprising directions.
If only they can contend with the new world-view their meeting reveals…
“Not everyone is able to process experiences like this.”
A linguist and college professor, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) watches from her class-room as twelve alien space ships set down at seemingly random locations around the world.
As panic sets in across the globe, Banks is contacted by the U.S. military.  Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) wants her to translate the alien language, and help him come to a better understanding of what this possible enemy may want on Earth.
Dr. Banks counters that she cannot translate an alien language until she learns something of the alien culture; until she is able to interact with the aliens, called Heptapods.
Weber is reluctant at first, but soon agrees to escort Banks to Montana, where the U.S. Army has set up a command post near one alien ship.  On the helicopter ride to the site, Banks encounters another expert in his field, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who believes, unlike Banks, that science is the foundation of civilization.
Banks argues, contrarily that language is the “glue that holds a people together.”
Upon contact with the aliens, Banks attempts to form a common fund of knowledge, or language, upon which to build mutual understanding and trust. Other scientists around the world also attempt to do so but utilize different learning approaches, some more confrontational than others.
As Banks learns more about the aliens and their strange language, she begins to understand more about them.  As other countries grow alarmed that the aliens may be bringing weapons to Earth to cause fighting among its people, Banks receives the full-language as a gift. She understands that the language is not a weapon, but a tool.
It is a tool that fundamentally transforms Banks’ understanding of life, and opens her up to a possibility that she had never before contemplated.
“How would you approach translating this?”
Language relates to culture. I think everybody agrees with that premise. But can language determine culture?
That’s a key question regarding the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and also the themes of Arrival. We all understand what “war” is, for example, but what if we understand that the word originally meant “desire for more cows” (in Sanskrit)?
Does everything we fight for -- and kill for -- come down, finally, to a desire for more material wealth?  Is that how we understand war now?  
Perhaps. Our language, our code, shapes our reality, every day.
We see this idea very clearly in our understanding of time, to utilize a more illustrative example. We mark time as a force that moves in one direction only, from the past to the future. We don’t die, grow young, and undergo birth.
Instead, the opposite always appears to occur. 
But what if time is non-linear, and has no direction whatsoever? What if we can’t understand the true nature of time because of our (limited) definition of time, which reads something like this: “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.
Arrival proposes and depicts an alien race that views time as non-linear. These aliens see outside the concrete ideas of past or future, and thus view the world differently than we do. That viewpoint is reflected in the alien language or alphabet, which is visualized as a series of inky circles of different thickness and edges.
In other words, the Heptopod language reflects the way the aliens see the universe (as a circle), just as our language code reflects the way we view the universe. Our language has a beginning and an end. Our alphabet starts at “A” and ends at “Z.”
Yet Arrival travels beyond Sapir-Whorf by suggesting that if Banks learns the alien language, her perception will also change; and that she will also possess the ability to see outside linear time.  This is poetic license regarding Sapir-Whorf, to be certain, but good poetic license.
Why? Well, when we are exposed to different cultures and their belief systems, we can’t go back to the narrow, parochial ethnocentric view we held before. The mere exposure to different thoughts, different words, a different language, opens up doorways to new understandings. Arrival takes the idea literally, but I believe it also utilizes it as a metaphor for what occurs every day in intercultural communication: the ability to grow beyond one’s set of precepts to understand that existence is richer than any one world view suggests.
Stuck in our own ethnocentric bubbles, we believe there is but one way to do things (our way!). But if we open ourselves up to other languages, cultures, and world-views, we start to become relativistic in our outlook; understanding that different people, living in different places, possess different answers to problems. Sure, there are some customs or beliefs we will always reject as too alien, or too different, or even too barbaric (see: cannibalism in The Green Inferno [2015]).  But other customs or beliefs we will recognize as wise, or as having things in common with our own traditions and morality.
Indeed, Banks almost magically assumes the power to view time in a non-linear fashion in Arrival after being gifted with the totality of the Hepatopod language. Yet metaphorically, this gift is something akin to the scales falling from her eyes. Her mastery of the alien language and culture grants her a new perspective on our own. Consider for a moment that the key imperatives for studying intercultural communication are: Self-awareness, demographic, economic, technological, peace, and ethical growth. In some-sense, Banks takes on several of these imperatives in the film, or at least the peace, ethics, and self-awareness ones.
Now consider Banks’ embrace of the new understanding she gleans from the aliens, and contrast it with the xenophobia we see rampant in today’s political swamp.  Of late, have we seen “others” consistently scapegoated as dangerous bogeymen. For example, illegal immigrants are often deemed rapists and murderers. Those of divergent religious beliefs would be banned from the United States, and by a president who ostensibly supports religious liberty.
Banks reaches out to the alien viewpoint with understanding, and saves mankind.  If she simply retreated into fear and fear-mongering, the human race would have been doomed, instead, by its own self-destructive impulses.
That’s the big picture of Arrival. It is the idea that language is “the first weapon drawn” in a conflict. But that language can also be the basis not for war, or battle, but for better understanding (just rarely in 140 characters).
How does Banks come to understand herself better? How does intercultural communication make her more self-aware?
Leave the cerebral notions of Sapir-Whorf behind for a moment, and consider, what she chooses at film’s end.  With a knowledge of non-linear time, Banks comes to see that she will have a child, a girl.  She will love and raise that girl into young adulthood, and then, tragically, see that young woman taken away by incurable cancer.
But, knowing about her daughter’s death is not a reason, finally, for Louise to choose a different course.  Instead, Banks sees that her daughter’s life possesses meaning, and continues, always, even if in linear time, Louise will have to suffer her child’s absence.
Oppositely, Banks’ husband, Ian, resents her choice to have a child, knowing that the child will die young. It’s as if all that love is wasted on a life that is short. It’s as if Louise chose cruelty, giving birth to a child just to see that individual die.
But that child’s life is not wasted, and Banks is able to discern that fact. Although we are “so bound by time and its order,” Banks is able to see that the times of love and joy in her child’s life are not outweighed by the shortness of her life-span, or by the sad way that her life ends.  For if time is non-linear, then death is not an ending.
We saw this idea, in some sense, in “Emissary,” the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) was unable to get beyond the tragic death of his young wife, Jennifer, in the Battle of Wolf 359. He later encountered the wormhole aliens, who didn’t understand the concept of linear of time, or his refusal to end his period of mourning.
If time is non-linear, mourning is no longer necessary.
Banks chooses that her daughter should exist, despite the fact that she will die of a terrible disease when she is young. 
Banks feels that because time is non-linear, her child will “come back to her” and that what she believed was the beginning and end of a journey were no such thing.
There are days that define your story beyond your life,” she concludes. Life is not a zero sum game. You don’t live and then die.  You live and die, and cycle goes on, in a circle, never-ending.
Arrival’s twist in terms of narrative structure is that the story of Louise’s child -- life, growth, death -- is told first. It is the first mini-arc of the movie’s plot. Therefore, we presume, throughout the film, that Louise’s child has died, and that she is experiencing grief and loneliness over it. 
Instead, the truth is that Louise has not yet had the child, or even met the father of her child.  She only becomes aware of these factors after encountering and mastering the alien language.  We have, like Louise, misunderstood the nature of time, and the time-line of the film.  We see her child’s story first, but are experiencing the cinematic equivalent of non-linear time.
By giving us the end of Louise’s story as a mother first, the film structurally apes the nature of the alien world view.  Form reflects content. The visuals symbolically teach us what we need to know about the Heptapod understanding of the universe.

In terms of visuals, I can argue that I find the film quite lovely too.
If language is an expression of art, then imagery is, too. Consider the first, portentous visual of the alien ship in Arrival.  We are treated to an aerial view of Earth’s green, rocky landscape, and a bed of encroaching mist. Beyond and over the wall of mist is a giant levitating ship that looks like a pebble perched on its side. 
The ship, in fact, looks like a pebble you might choose to skip across a pond.  Its shape evokes the idea of a stone creating ripples in time, its influence expanding outward in all directions at once (past, present and future?)
Arrival is smart, emotionally-powerful, and beautifully-wrought. It doesn’t possess all the answers, but its brilliance arises in its ability to ask the right questions about the world, and our existence as human beings.
How would you approach translating this?
Arrival isn’t a movie about a linguist who saves the world, but about a linguist who comes to understand her own world in a way that makes her existence (and her daughter’s existence) not just bearable, but meaningful.
This is the great challenge for all of us, every day, isn’t it?


  1. The biggest concept I came away with (and something that I've been interested in as a religious individual) is the idea of predestination. Even though the aliens see time in a non-linear fashion, we humans are forced to live life and experience time linearly. The film seems to tell us that the idea of multiple alternate realities, where our decisions open up alternate channels in time or even the concept of time travel (moving backwards and forwards through time) itself are impossible. There is only one timeline, the one where we humans make our decisions and live with the consequences but where the aliens can freely slip in and out of time at any point they choose.

    From a religious point of view, it's the "free will" vs. "predestination" argument. Has God chosen us to be who we are? Are some of us destined to heaven or hell? Or do we have free will and therefore make our own destiny? I've wrestled with this idea and many years ago came up with an image to teach my CCD classes about the concept.

    I would draw a circle. Contained within the circle is a line with a single dot on it. I would explain that the circle is "eternity" or the place where God dwells and that it's not really a circle but a sphere. The line is "time" and the place where we dwell. The point is "us". The beginning and end of the line can either be the big bang and the end of the universe or it can mean our birth and our death. It ultimately doesn't make a difference because our lives are defined by a beginning and an end travelled on a linear path.

    God exists in the circle (or sphere) that is Eternity. God is outside of "time". He can see anything and anywhere at once because Eternity encircles time. Therefore, from our point of view, we have free will because we make our choices and live with the decisions. God sees time from the outside and therefore from God's point of view, we are predestined to make those decisions.

    These are two very different perspectives but one eventual outcome. That's how I saw "Arrival". The aliens are outside of time but can slip in when they so choose because it was meant to happen at that point and was always meant to happen. Amy Adams character realizes that she can't escape her destiny or the fate of her unborn child and yet chooses to let it unfold because she had no choice...her free will was predestined to happen from an "eternal" point of view. So, no "Back To The Future" parallel universes are possible in this view of the universe, just the one we are all meant to live out.

  2. Another rumination on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is in The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance.

  3. John, in the end, it is a fascinating story because of the simple fact that these aliens are extremely different from us, but ultimately benign with no terrorist intent. As we saw in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind(1977), so is the The Arrival today. Not malignant aliens as seen in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Thing, War Of The Worlds, Lifeforce, The Twilight Zone "To Serve Man", Battlefield Earth(2000) et.al . The Arrival would have been a horror film if extreme Trojan Horse deception was the motive of these specific alien immigrants arriving on the shore of Earth. I am glad it was not.


  4. John,
    When I read that you were going to post a review of Arrival, I found and bookmarked the Slate article you referenced, in order to share with you. However, you beat me to it!
    Your trepidation to adequately review Arrival is understandable, but we, your regular readers, would have no doubt in your ability to deliver some of the most thoughtful insights into this wonderful film. Evoking the comparison of the ship to a pebble skipping across the tides of time is something only you could have given us. You utilize language in ways that open and expand the imagery of the films being discussed; you've certainly forced me to re-examine my perspectives more than once, to my delight and appreciation. That your way with words is reinforced through close examination of a film in which language is the primary plot driver underlines your abilities. Only Nixon could go to China; Only Dr. Louise Banks could save the world; Only John Kenneth Muir could deliver the most introspective review of Arrival and many, many others.
    Well done.

    1. Steve,

      That was such a beautiful comment. Thank you so much. It brought a tear to my eye. :)

      Thank you for always being supportive, and for always adding so much to the discussion here.

      All my best,

    2. Absolutely, John, and I Thank You for your kind words as well!