Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)


Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (2016)

Score: beautiful.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor. When twelve UFOs appear all over Earth, she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitalker) and tasked with deciphering their language. With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they need to answer the urgent question: what is their purpose on Earth?

Arrival casts aside the usual protagonists of a first contact story, the soldier and the physicist, and gives the spotlight to the eternal redshirt: the linguist. The usual approach is mocked with an exchange along the lines of: “Have they reacted to Fibonacci?”; “We don’t even know what they answer when we say hello.” Arrival takes the baton from Solaris, but is much more optimistic: we can actually understand aliens, if only we take the right approach.

Unlike many other First Contact movies, there’s no big fuss about showing the aliens. The tension up to that point is well-achieved and based on those expectations on the part of the viewer. Are we going to see them already? What are they like? The first act of the film does away with these questions and focuses on other motifs.


Games, game theory and strategy are underlying themes. Louise is given a character-establishing moment early on in the movie: when she makes a snarky remark about how the military was quick with the insurgents. This tells us Louise is a pacifist, suspicious of using force and is probably a linguist out of a desire to understand the different. She’s also shown to be resourceful: she quickly understands she won’t be able to speak to the heptapods in their language, so she chooses a written approach. I love that Colonel Weber is like the most reasonable military official in the history of science-fiction: he understands what Louise is doing when she explains her strategy, and is more than willing to defend her approach to higher, more belligerent instances.

While Louise is teaching the heptapods English, we find out that the Chinese are conversing with them using Mahjong. It’s not all that weird: if Louise hadn’t come along, the Americans would probably be trying to converse using algebraic progressions or prime numbers, which is mentioned the Australians tried and did not work. Trying to comunicate with another intelligent being is, when all is said and done, about managing to find and reproduce patterns. As explained in the movie, using a pattern such as a game, which only understands binary results in terms of winning and losing, will yield wildly different results from using math or a natural language such as English. Throughout the movie, Louise strives to stay true to her principles and stay peaceful and cooperative with the aliens, as she sees no reason to distrust them so far. It’s in this context that zero-sum games are mentioned: a zero-sum game is one in which the sum of each outcome is always zero, which means “the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation”. Being greedy is not going to help in this situation: the information provided by the heptapods is divided in twelve parts and refusing to share yours will only lead to you having an incomplete dossier. It’s ironic that Agent Halpern points out: “We’re a world with no single leader. It’s impossible to deal with just one of us.”, like that’s a reason to believe the heptapods are trying to divide humanity.

Going back to codes, even the way in which we use and interpret a natural language will vary wildly depending on our mindset: this is illustrated in the dialogue in which Louise says that “Gravisti”, the Sanskrit word for “war”, does not mean “an argument” but “a desire for more cows”. Quine’s interminacy of translation thesis comes to mind: in his example, a linguist, much like Louise, is trying to create a dictionary of a first-encountered language by speaking to its speakers. One of the speakers points to a rabbit and says “gavagai”. Quine’s thesis is that there is no way for the linguist to be completely sure that he has a correct translation for “gavagai”: it could mean a rabbit, a particular kind of rabbit, the colour of the rabbit, a rabbit of a certain age, rabbithood or even a concept that doesn’t exist in English. Pretty much the same way, the heptapods keep referring to their language as a weapon: the only way Louise realizes that they’re referring to their language is because she happens to have some shared reference with them: she’s starting to perceive time in a non-linear way, like they do.

The notion hinted at by Wittgenstein, that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are used to explain how learning Heptapod enables Louise to perceive time non-linearly. You don’t have to be a linguist or a neuroscientist to realize this is implausible, but you came to watch a sci-fi movie. Like linguist Yves Goddard has remarked: “the film offers a thought-provoking example of how integral language is to our lives—and yet how little we know about how it works, even today”. I’ll never get tired of pointing this out: science-fiction is not about predicting the future, or aliens, or robots; it’s about us, about now, about some problem that worries the author, presented as a metaphor with scientific and fantastic elements.

This brings me to the ages-old dichotomy between hard and soft science-fiction. In a sense, this movie is hard science-fiction: the scientists in it behave and think like scientists, not like ignorant tourists on a field trip. Scientific procedures and developments are realistic, and so are Louise’s explanations of her approach. The way the heptapod ships work and how they change gravity are suitably left unexplained: they are owed to some science and technology we don’t know yet and serve the purpuse of showing the heptapods’ technological superiority. The only thing I didn’t like much was Louise being able to breathe in the heptapod misty atmosphere. What was all the fuss with the glass pane and the air cycling about, then? In the other hand, the treatment of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mostly soft science-fiction. None is better than the other, but as a writer you need to know the rules of both, especially if you’re going to combine them, as is the case here. The combination looks seamless to me.

Arrival also takes the baton from another absolute classic of science-fiction: Slaughterhouse Five. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American Soldier in World War II that later gets abducted and displayed in an alien zoo. Billy Pilgrim experiences time non-linearly as well: he becomes “unstuck in time” as the result of his traumatic experience. The aliens who abduct him are able to see in four dimensions, which makes them adopt a fatalistic view of life in which death is meaningless because of its inevitability. Like in its allusion to Solaris, Arrival is devastatingly optimistic when inheriting from Slaughterhouse Five: Louise’s newly acquired ability to see through time allows her to save the day. It also informs her that her daughter will die of disease while still a teenager and her knowing this will end her marriage with Ian, but she embraces this course of events all the same.

The film uses flashforwards disguised as flashbacks: we assume her daughter died before the events of the movie; some subtle hints tell us otherwise, such as Hannah modeling a heptapod out of play dough, and drawing a cage with a bird in it when she discusses “Mommy and Daddy talk to animals”. Finding out that Louise has never met this child she keeps seeing in her mind’s eye forces us to reinterpret the whole movie in a different key. It’s not clear whether Louise can see in four dimensions, meaning she can remember things that haven’t happened yet, or if she just experiences events out of chronological order. Reasons to believe in the first option are just how convenient her flashforwards are; reasons to believe in the second are found in a sequence where she looks suddenly disoriented and asks Hannah what day it is, probably expecting to hear the year in the answer. Either way, what we perceive as flashbacks and, later, as flashforwards, is actually the way in which Louise perceives events. Visual language and conventions have been effectively used to keep an illusion and the viewer’s attention to the very end.


Resources: Does the Linguistic Theory at the Center of the Film ‘Arrival’ Have Any Merit?



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