I keep seeing Arrival


Arrival is one of those movies I can’t stop thinking about. It offers a complex, intriguing, enjoyable entertainment experience. It’s well paced, very well acted, especially Amy Adams. To call it a time-travel sci-fi would do it an injustice. Based on The Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is emotionally, intellectually, and ethically challenging. The film explores the theory of linguistic relativity, time as a linear concept, precognition, cooperation among nations, and romantic and parental love and responsibility. Rather than merely juxtapose the subtleties of linguistics against the pragmatism of military might or pit the emotional/spiritual aspects of human existence against the rational/scientific, the message of Arrival seems to be that everything matters and the fusion of all these things is what makes humans, or cognizant beings from anywhere in any galaxy, self-aware.

When twelve spaceships land at various locations all over the world linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tapped to interpret the language of the aliens for the American government. She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) interact with the the aliens they call Hepatoids to help the military try to determine whether the aliens’ intentions are hostile. This is happening all over the world as other countries are attempting communication as well, some coming to different conclusions due to their interpretation of alien language. The problem is that the alien language is ambiguous. Typically, world forces refuse to share data. It is division among humans and refusal to communicate that ultimately endangers the world.

SPOILER ALERT – See Arrival before you read further.

The theory of linguistic relativity is the idea that the language we speak, the language in which we formulate our thoughts and dream affects the way we think. As she studies the language and communicates with the Hepatoids Louise discovers that they do not experience time linearly and, therefore, rather than perceiving experiences as cause and effect events related to the passage of time, they perceive purpose in experiences in a wholistic sense.

Louise is experiencing time out of order because her brain has been rewired due to continuous focus on the alien language. Louise experiences precognition about Hannah, the daughter she will bear, who will love and discover and create then eventually develop an incurable disease and die. Louise perceives that Hannah’s life has purpose regardless of length or circumstances of her death.

The visual language in the film helps the audience process the non-linear aspect of time. Arrival begins and ends in the same place, visually.  Revisiting that setting behind Louise’s house several times to helps the audience process the non-linear aspect of time. At the beginning of the film Louise seems to have already experienced Hannah’s loss and seems to be aware of this throughout the movie.

As she attempts to understand the language of the aliens Louise experiences what seem like flashbacks of her daughter, but by the end of the movie these seem to be precognition of events to come. Yet in the film these events appear to be presented to the audience as a past experience before the audience sees Louise encounter the aliens. This gives the film something of a Groundhog Day time loop feel in that Louise’s grief over Hannah’s loss is part of her experience before Hannah is even born and even before she meets the aliens. Visual cues like the beginning and ending shots of the lake behind Louise’s house; and Hannah’s name is explained as a palindrome help distinguish the idea that the experience is non-linear. 

It seems that Louise is always experiencing Hannah’s death, the separation, the loss, the pain, but at the same time she is also always experiencing Hannah; Hannah’s life, the essence of who Hannah was and the meaning of Hannah’s existence, however brief, is always with Louise. Her experience with her daughter is with her as a present experience. The trade-off is that so is Hannah’s death. There seems to be no getting around that one.

Unable to translate into auditory sounds,the names of the two aliens they meet with to establish communication, Louise and Ian call them Abbott and Costello. After an explosion created by some off-mission soldiers fearing alien attack, Costello explains to Louise and Ian that “Abbott is in death process..” Einstein said, “the distinction between past, present, and the future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Arrival falls short of presenting death as illusion, but suggests a thinner veil in how loss is experienced non-linearly.

When Louise explains her split with her husband to Ian she says that he left because she “made the wrong choice.” Which raises the question: does Louise have free will or is she simply aware of what will happen because, in the non-linearity of time as she now experiences, it has already happened? Arrival does suggest choice since the aliens would not have come to earth to equip them to help them in the future. This raises yet another question: since they come on this mission to earth, do the aliens know the outcome of whatever is going to happen in their world 3000 years hence? There seems to be a limitation of foreknowledge to individual experience.

It eventually becomes apparent that Ian is Hannah’s father, the husband who left Louise. She asks Ian “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” This is the heart of the film. Louise makes a choice to have Hannah knowing that she will suffer and die and that this loss will cause grief for her and Ian. Louise chooses to have Hannah and allow her to live and to love, to discover and to create, to suffer and to die. She embraces the experience, accepting the pain and grief that comes with it. Louise also chooses to tell Ian about this choice. Maybe this is the wrong choice. Louise’s brain is rewired so that she is equipped to process knowing what’s coming. Ian’s is not. Humans are wired to accept mortality but not with foreknowledge of the details.

Meaning in art is personal.  Here’s how I processed Arrival :

Accept all life experience, even the painful parts. Be present in the now. Fully embrace each relationship, even though some relationships might be temporary and result in grief.

“Christ crucified before the foundation of the world” suggests God knew humans would need redemption before humans existed and that Christ would die for the world before the world existed so God might not experience time in a linear way.

Time and even death might be mere contexts for human experience in linear time on earth but we will not need these constructs forever.

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