Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Based upon the science-fiction novella “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival explores the linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that one’s perception of reality is either altered or determined by the language they speak.
Through this premise, the film explores heavy metaphysical questions. Do our minds shape language or does language shape our minds? If we knew the future, would we make the same choices? And if so, would our choices be made of free will, or merely a fulfillment of destiny?
Language shapes the way one thinks, if one has words for a concept they are more likely to understand that concept, rather than if they have no language to describe it. This affirms the importance of listening to someone else understand them.
Language only stabilizes the chaos of existence to a certain extent. Language is not just about communicating with others, it is also a tool to develop meaning in the world around us.
In the film, twelve egg-like alien ships arrive on Earth at different positions around the globe, allowing periodic access for humans to enter and interface with each ship’s two, seven-legged inhabitants (the numerology is laden with Biblical symbolism).
The confrontation with the unknown of the alien arrival has provoked panic in the general populace, who react with riots and mayhem.
Louise Banks, a linguist professor, is the protagonist of the film. The flashes of memories (initially assumed to be from her past are actually memories from her future) are non-diegetic and influence the audience’s initial assumption of who Louise is as a person. This initial montage of memories places the audience as a spectator outside of time (paralleling Solomon’s lamentations in Ecclesiastes 1) as a person’s life is glimpsed in a moment.
At the beginning of the film, without the context of the assumed ‘flashbacks’, Louise is clearly someone who is not embracing life. She is secluded in her comfort zone where she maintains a routine and observes the world through windows and television screens. She is not enthusiastic about her job and lives a quiet, uneventful life. Louise appears to be the only one who isn’t fully processing the event, as she unknowingly shows up to her class and finds it empty. She is reluctant towards change, and she is forced out of her comfort zone when she is recruited by the military to establish communication with the aliens to determine the purpose for their arrival. This slow reaction to change is also indicated when she tells her mother, “you know me, I’m about the same” suggesting this is her natural state.
Ernest Becker said “the irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” As Louise does, people often shrink from life through lack of engagement and avoid adopting true meaning or confronting the concept of death. Thus they miss out on life altogether.
When Louise boards the helicopter, she meets Physicist Ian Donnelly, her partner on the mission, and their conversation establishes and contrasts their differing beliefs. Ian quotes a section from Louise’s book saying “language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” She contextualizes the quote as merely “a preface” and “the basics”, to which Ian refutes that “the cornerstone of civilization isn’t language, it’s science.”
The arrival of the Heptapods symbolizes an awakening to the unknown, to potential and meaning. Louise and Ian’s initial journey into the Heptapod ship is towards a literal light (at the end of the tunnel). The efforts to communicate with the Heptapods thus is striving to connect with existence itself. When Louise first enters the alien ship where they recreated the Earth's atmosphere, she is hesitant to face the Heptapods, and she meets them in protective gear and is behind a protective screen. These barriers are signs of the default state of fear. Louise gradually realizes that they will not be able to authentically communicate if she lets herself be dominated by fear, and recognizes the need to move past the barriers and towards a real interaction. Louise takes a risk, against the military orders, to remove her containment suit: becoming vulnerable to the aliens so “they can see [her]”, so they can build trust through their interactions and communicate more effectively. Her colleagues don’t know how to respond, and neglect to follow her lead. To build trust one needs to be vulnerable. This causes the audience to reflect on the protective suits we wear when communicating with other human beings. This is the first step for Louise to cross the threshold from skepticism and fear to belief and trust.
Louise and her team work to understand the alien language in order to ascertain the purpose of their visit. Louise discerns that they are “never going to be able to speak their words, [...] but they might have some sort of written language or basis for visual communication” and thus uses a whiteboard in attempts to communicate. Members of the military continually stress that Louise is “running out of time” and demand that she accelerate her process, though effectively communicating “what is your purpose here on earth?” relies on assumptions about agency, personhood and identity and thus cannot be rushed.
As Louise clarifies “we need to make sure that [the Heptapods] understand what a question is: the nature of a request for information along with a response. Then, we need to clarify the difference between a specific “you” and a collective “you”, because we don’t want to know why Joe Alien is here, we want to know why they all landed. And purpose requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out: do they make conscious choices? Or is their motivation so instinctive that they don’t understand a “why” question at all? And, and biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer.”
For example, the structure of the grammar will indicate how that culture perceives the world, and because these aliens have a non-linear grammatical structure, this means the Heptapod world is non-linear which means they do not have a system of time.
Louise illustrates this to Colonel Weber with a story of how explorers first went to Australia, they met the Aborigines and asked what a specific animal was, the Aborigines replied “kangaroo”, which in their native language meant “I do not know”. She later clarifies to Ian that the story was not true, though the illustration convinced the general and bought them time. Understanding why the aliens arrived is the reason for their studies, so they cannot “misinterpret things”. This is true when developing a relationship with someone, and understanding how they communicate (not just their language, but their thought process, worldview, origins, etc) and taking the time to understand what they are saying on their terms, letting them speak for themselves and not being afraid or rushed. As Nelson Mandela said, “if you speak to a man in a language that he understands that goes to his head, but if you speak to him in his language that goes to his heart.” Because Louise and Ian allowed time to develop a relationship with the Heptapods, they built a foundation of trust with the Heptapods who were then able to present the gift of enlightenment and unity that they came to provide. Before the Heptapods were only understood through computer translation into English, but now (because Louise speaks their language) they can be fully understood in relationship.
As the various countries strive to translate the aliens’ language and communicate with them, they also arrive at different conclusions. Some cultures do not have different words for “weapon” and “tool,” which become a roadblock when trying to discern the Heptapod motives. Eventually each country gradually discontinued their communication, presumably out of fear. China translated a symbol as “use weapon”, where the US translated as “offer weapon”. Furthermore, the language still needs to be clarified ‘who’ will use the weapon, is it ‘us’ or ‘them’? The same idea was communicated from the Heptapod standpoint, but the humans made different interpretations. What the Heptapods are saying is “use the tool that we’ve given you”, but all the government hears is that the aliens are going to use a weapon “against us”. One country uses a game to communicate with the aliens, and Louise remarks that if the only form of communication is competition, then within the framework the only outcomes are that one side will win, and another will lose. The varying lingual confusion is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.
For all their advancement, the Heptapods still have their limits. They’re powerful and kind, but not all-knowing. They still exist within time, rather than outside of it. Their gift is a new way of perceiving time, attending to reality. When Louise becomes fluent in the Heptapod language, it rewires her human brain and her perception of time: allowing her full awareness of her past and future. Through the new temporal awareness, Louise is able to access information about events in the future. These aren’t static visions of a possible future but are participatory. Louise is in conversation with her future self; acts that take place in the future affect the past. She sees that the future is both predestined and dynamic. This does not take away her freedom, but casts her freedom in a new light. It is a power that both enlightens and aggrieves, giving her insight not only into the global crisis with the aliens, but also into her personal future. Louise discovers that she will have a daughter, Hannah, who will die of cancer as a teenager. In addition, she sees that the girl’s father, Ian, will leave when he learns that she knew Hannah will never reach adulthood. As Louise asks Ian at the end of the film, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?" Louise indeed makes the choice to create that future. Louise resembles Christ as she chooses to pursue love and sacrifice even though she can see the pain that lies ahead, as Christ could also see the Joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). Some experiences may be painful, though that doesn’t mean we should miss the good by avoiding it all together. The brevity of a relationship doesn’t change whatever good or beauty results from it. She can see that her daughter will die, but she also sees every beautiful relational experience they will have. As she’s no longer experiencing time linearly, death is no longer a punctuation mark or definition of life: every experience with her daughter is now of equal value and weight, it’s no longer building towards a conclusion.
The typical ethical questions, such as ‘what’s the barometer for measuring how long is a justified life’, is framed here. While Hannah will live a shorter life relative to others, nevertheless, factually all people will die - so what is the difference between an 80-year life and a 16-year life if there are still good and beautiful things that that result from it? Hannah creates art, plays, laughs, cries, tells her mom she loves her. There’s the potential for great joy in that unborn life. Why would it be any less ethical to bring this person into the world than someone who would do this for a little longer of a time? Knowing that you can bring someone into the world who can experience all of those things: joy, creativity, love and pain, knowing that would you choose to let it not happen because you know it may not be for very long?
This is a heavy question precisely because it is a universal one. All human beings must decide whether they will choose to love (to will to live and to seek the good of the other) in the face of pain and death. Though that choice is not easy, it is one of high importance.
This resembles the events of the Garden of Eden, where God knew that humanity would fall, and He knew that not every human born would have a relationship with Him, and yet He still chose and chooses to create.
God does not see time linearly, He sees the fall and redemption at the same time, past, present and future: the whole picture, as He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13) God is outside of time.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. The former refers to chronological and measurable time, while the latter refers to a season or an opportune time. Chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative permanence. God is both chronos and kairos, the unity of polarity.
It is natural for humans, who are limited to linear perception, to ask simple theological questions such as “why would God bring us into the world knowing we would die, or knowing suffering will happen?” As God sees everything, it’s a fundamentally different perspective than how humans see the world.
This film offers a helpful view at this aspect of God. While the Heptapods gift does not make humans like God, it provides another way, another avenue to understand and “see” God.
The film is a reminder that we live in the balance of human responsibility and God's sovereignty.
This message reminded me of Brandon Heath’s song, “Give Me Your Eyes” - www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqaP_nOSOLc
One of the most prominent features of humanity's relationship to God is faith. “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Does faith exist outside of linear time? Faith of the same nature would not be possible if we saw everything. Faith in God is reliance on the Creator that we do not understand and is beyond our control, beyond our decisions, yet also knows what’s best for us, even if we cannot see our future.
Humanity’s time is linear, thus we intensely experience pain and joy because in the moment that’s all we know. Louise probably had an odd mixture of joy and heartbreak because she now has access to a higher understanding of events, and when she gives birth to Hannah, she is overjoyed to have a daughter, though there is a part of her that hurts for the future of her child. When Hannah is on her deathbed, Louise still has gratitude for the time with her and is thoughtful of Hannah’s legacy, and thus is hyper-aware of the living memory of her presence.
Louise is able to humbly surrender to “embrace [the journey], and welcome every moment”.
Like Louise, we’re called to trust God and act justly in the present moment, knowing that we can walk forward in time, knowing that God has walked before us, and He walks with us (Deuteronomy 31:8). Relationship with Him leads to a place where time dissipates into eternity: the place of true arrival.