“Language is the cornerstone of civilization,” Dr. Louise Banks writes in her preface. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist, counters that science is the true foundation, completely neglecting the communicative platform that enables him to express this belief. I suppose we all take language for granted. We know how to construct words that form sentences that in turn express thought, but we fail to recognize the system that allows us to frame thought into words. Syntax. Order and meaning; it’s symbiotic but in many ways alien to us, because even the slightest misunderstanding can have dire consequences: “[Language] is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
The film begins with a solemn prelude. Louise gives birth to a daughter. She cares for her, loves her. The child develops a rare form of cancer. Louise holds her daughter for the last time. Louise attempts to navigate her grief by pouring herself into her work, despondent, trying to move on. Then, as fate would have it, they arrive.
When Colonel Weber enlists Louise to translate the alien language, he’s frustrated by the lack of an easy answer. It will take time. She’d have to be there, she says. Louise is simply translating the nature of that request, that of talking to beings whom we have no common communicative ground with. Weber is unconvinced. There must be a quicker way. Louise poses a challenge to the next linguist on Weber’s list – the Sanskrit word for war (Gavisti) and its translation. Her colleague provides the literal translation, “an argument.” Louise provides the correct one in Hindu, “a desire for more cows” (a demonstration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language shapes the way we think and how we view the world). Her colleague may not be wrong, but Louise is mindful of words having different meanings in other cultures. She gets the job.
Twelve alien pods are scattered across the globe. World governments are scrambling to work together, uniting against a common threat. Every nation is sending in their own Dr. Banks to find out why they’re here. No one’s been exterminated. No cities have been destroyed. The sole objective: talk to them.
The most extraordinary breakthrough comes from a written response. The heptapods communicate by way of ink-blotted symbols projected on screen. The shapes are circular and semasiographic, conveying meaning instead of sound. The challenge for Louise then becomes one of enormous translation, as one symbol can represent a complex sentence or set of sentences. Subsequent sessions in the shell are likened to elementary grammar instruction. This is a noun. This is an adjective. A verb. Pronoun. Louise begins to have recurring visions of her daughter, teaching her how to speak, spell, and define, Louise’s past seemingly informing her present.
Repeated breakthroughs come in the form of mutual understanding achieved by the simple act of listening. The alien shells may look like an upturned pumice stone, but as these sessions progress, the pods begin to resemble an open ear. How much could we accomplish if we took the time to listen to each other? Small wonder why we’re so disconnected. “We’re a world with no single leader,” Agent Halpern reminds us. As if we needed reminding. The world is divvied up into 195 countries. America alone is made up of 50 states and within these states are our own dividing lines. These divisions extend inside the base camp. Halpern is struggling to maintain global contact, Colonel Weber is safeguarding national interests, and elsewhere, a soldier becomes increasingly paranoid of the aliens’ intentions.
When the time comes to figure out what the heptapods’ purpose is on Earth, they provide an obscure answer, “offer weapon.” This goes on to be misinterpreted by other nations as a declaration of war, becoming the biggest point of contention in the film. Something is taken wildly out of context and interpreted every which way but the truth. Links to other countries are suddenly severed. Militaries begin preparations for an appropriate response. They’ve heard enough.
Colonel Weber tells Louise that it’s over. Nevertheless, she persists. She offers a different possibility, that weapon might mean “tool” or “technology,” not necessarily an intent to kill – a biased presumption considering our welcome party is a substantial military force. What does that say about our culture?
“I don’t understand,” Louise pleads, the visions of her daughter beginning to pile on. The heptapods, we soon find, are not here to destroy Earth. They’re here to help. Because what better way to bring people together than a global crisis, and to pool resources to make sense of this. In this journey to ascertain meaning, the heptapods, in turn, point Louise to the meaning of her life – her daughter, Hannah.
Unlike us, heptapods are free of time. They see time in all of its infinite glory. In learning their language, Louise has begun to perceive the world the way they do. She can glimpse the future. As it turns out, she already has.
The prelude and preceding flashbacks of Louise’s daughter were, in fact, flash-forwards. Consider the visual language of film and the syntactical structure in which we derive meaning. Everything shown beforehand or inter-cut in between is perceived as backstory, informing our current perspective of these characters. In the beginning of the film, as Louise is wandering through the university on her own, we attribute her despondency to that of a grieving mother all through a simple means of sequencing and order. Film, in a multi-dimensional number of ways, is communication through time.
Now, we realize, Louise was simply someone committed to her work in linguistic study, which ironically has made her anti-social. But this realization doesn’t deter the fact that she won’t have a daughter. It just hasn’t happened yet.
This revelation bridges Louise’s fate. Louise, now fluent in heptapod, will go on to instruct others on how to speak their language, allowing humans to evolve beyond our limited worldview. It will be the unifying factor that will bring nations and people together. Admittedly, this notion of a universal language is one of fantasy. But at least it’s a fantasy worth aspiring towards.
Louise gives her daughter a palindromic name. Palindromes can be read the same forwards and backwards. Arrival, too, is a palindromic film. Because everything that transpires, the plot, conflict, resolution, all lead to the same revelation. “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Louise asks Ian, who’s been by her side every step of the way, leading to their inevitable union. We flash-forward to a similar instance, when Ian will ask if she wants to have a baby. This is the moment that will define her life. This is Louise’s destination.
Louise knows exactly what will happen. We’ve seen it happen. She’s been communicating across time to her daughter. A child with a doomed fate, and a child she will embrace regardless. Arrival may be a film that strongly advocates empathy and globalism as virtues, but the film’s most powerful message happens to be the simplest, that choosing to be a mother is its own form of heroism.
Arrival is available on Blu-ray today.