Arrival. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, & Forest Whitaker. Paramount, 2016.
Spoilers ahead. Please do not read ahead if you haven’t seen it.
It feels like a gray, silver light permeates much of Arrival, on the one hand, lingering over moments of hope, giving them a sense of foreboding; on the other, rendering the violence of a world descending into chaos almost mute. “We are so bound by time; by its order,” muses a professor of linguistics at the opening, fully aware that language and memory conspire to create perceptions of time, perceptions which confuse order, perhaps even attempt to cancel its significance altogether. However, without our usual perspective, in the sheer bluntness of facts, we will confront a gray haze: the truth is always shrouded, especially when most needed. The need to communicate, to know what has been said, to know the truth relative to another, accompanies Arrival‘s stark palette, whether one speaks of a cloudy lake overseen by a window, an egg-like spacecraft hovering over the earth, dark grays ascending into a windowed chamber, grays of a makeshift military camp, a white, silvery mist keeping the aliens alive. That need nearly drowns cataclysmic cries as well as the hope there is something beyond this life as we know it. I felt numb, as I wanted to understand how the alien language could possibly work, how they could be spoken to, whether our heroine could prevent a nuclear strike directed at them.
“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life,” Louise says. Arrival begins by briefly summarizing the life of Louise and her daughter Hannah. She cradles her baby when born; they play in the yard between the window and lake; she grips her teenager tightly as the daughter dies in a hospital bed. The action then shifts to what will, at last, be revealed as an earlier time, the time when aliens visited the earth in various locations, in spacecraft that hovered gently over the earth. Louise, a professor of linguistics, makes studying the structure of language the most badass occupation possible: she realizes that sound might be useless when trying to talk to squidlike creatures; she steps out of her protective suit so they can she what she is; she writes “human” on a whiteboard, pointing to herself, and in response they reveal the inky circles they communicate with. She earns trust by showing faith, and it is natural that the accompanying scientist falls in love with her while learning from her methods. Trust and faith are accompanied by wonder at the creatures as well as a rigorous exploration of the language they employ. At one point Louise explains how complicated it is to ask the question “What is your purpose here on Earth?” The aliens have to understand what a question is and what sort of information it should elicit; there’s the difference between a collective “you” and a specific “you;” “purpose” implies intent, and therein lies the concern of whether the aliens can understand a “why” question; finally, one has to give the aliens enough of a vocabulary to appropriately respond.
The alien language is revealed to be a language which speaks the future – well, not quite. The heptapods perceive time in a nonlinear fashion; past, present, and future are spoken all at once. Close, technical examination of their inky logograms demonstrates this, but Louise does not solve the puzzle with analysis alone. Her encounter with the aliens gives her flash-forwards, where she starts seeing the future in bits and pieces. Her daughter, her husband, her daughter’s disease, her husband leaving her, her daughter’s learning, her daughter’s death. The film demands multiple viewings, as Louise’s recollecting her encounter with the aliens and the flash-forwards she had is her attempt to find Hannah again. It is not an attempt which feels in vain. The window overlooking the yard at the lake house parallels the protective screen the aliens stay behind; Hannah is the result of her marrying the scientist she was paired with for communicating with them. Her daughter is as much an alien as the aliens themselves: the flash-forwards include ones where she reaches for words that help her daughter and the problem of the aliens.
What is alien is acceptance. This much the film makes abundantly clear, as Louise sees the future and accepts it for the sake of giving love. If the aliens have the language man had before Babel, the all-powerful language which was the whole of the race, they regard it as a gift to mankind. They let it speak to them and us, and indeed, one of their logographs is an entire timeline of their race’s history. Acceptance – letting the language speak – might be thought horribly cornball if it weren’t so powerful in this particular context. The wonderment of hearing a child speak for a first time, or figuring out how to say “hi” in a meaningful way, are products of such acceptance, as is a science which forges ahead question by question, consideration by consideration, without forcing the issue of control. We do know the future, after all. We make choices and have a rough idea of how they will or won’t work. If we could truly accept the consequences of our words and actions, it would be the same as knowing the future. It would be the same as decoding an alien cipher about another topic entirely and understanding how one’s life unfolds. Language links knowledge and self-knowledge – the same questions one asks to see if one is understood are used to see if one understands anything at all. Louise tells the Colonel to ask a competitor for the job of translating alien what the Sanskrit word for war means. The competitor says it means “argument;” Louise says it means “a desire for more cows.” The difference between the definitions is meaning itself. Still, these remarks are incomplete, as I have spoken a sort of consequentialism, with an emphasis on beginnings (our actions and words) and endings (their results). When one sees the world in a nonlinear fashion, when timelines are scrambled together as they actually are, language reflects a fuller, richer reality. Acceptance isn’t the end; it’s just the beginning of a series at which one’s words only hint.