"Arrival" Review - The Liberating Power of Remembering the Future
"Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
That’s how the beginning of a fictional book by Louise Banks (Amy Adams) begins. She’s the protagonist of this story and our ambassador of humanity, who manages to understand the reason why an alien civilization has decided to visit us.
Yes, Arrival relies heavily on linguistic relativity (shouted out in the film as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). We perceive the world depending on the language we speak and the meaning we give to words, hence things. That—supposedly—in the Eskimo language, there are dozens of different ways of referring to "snow", making them perceive even the color white differently. It's an interesting debate that's still ongoing.
However, that's only the entry point for the Arrival sci-fi device. The point that this movie wants to make is about human connections and how the ego and protocols have negatively mutated what should be a primarily emotional, positive and non-calculating nexus.
Arrival begins like all good sci-fi: Establishing the tension of facing the unknown, without having to blow up something, just a few minutes in (they do have one explosion, but way later on the story).
Out of nowhere, 12 extraterrestrial spacecraft appears in 12 different nations of the planet. They don't do anything. They are just there, expectant.
But unlike other menacing UFOs in pop culture (Independence Day and District 9 come to mind), the Arrival ships remain levitating just a few meters from the ground, almost like taunting. Like it's on purpose.
Because it is. The reason is simple: the ships have made a huge trip and are interested in making contact with humans. By not landing on earth and staying suspended a few meters away from the ground, they are forcing humans to make the final outreach to initiate communication.
In other words, from the very beginning, they're teaching us to use the "gift" that heptapods wants to give us.
But to reach that realization, many things have to happen before. Louise Banks, a seemingly withdrawn and sad linguist, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), are going to be able to build a kind of heptapods language alphabet.
Of course, Louise will have to deal with the hard limits of obtuse thinking of humanity, which sees time like a straight line. Forgive us, Louise, that's how we are set up.
Director Denis Villeneuve proves this point, again and again, using the tools of filmmaking for it.
There is a particular shot that's quite powerful. The tension of ignorance generates paranoia among all the nations of the world. They begin to be protective of their few advances in their communications with aliens. In the end, what remains is a sight of 12 monitors (for each of the nations with an extraterrestrial spacecraft on them) displaying a bright red message of “disconnected." The heptapods' gift only works if we talk and share with each other. At this point in history, humanity is too deep in its own ego to see that.
But Villeneuve is not limited to such concrete representations. He also involves us as spectators in his pedagogy.
Thanks to the magic art of editing, Villeneuve quickly "deceives" us, making us believe that Louise's images with her daughter Hannah are memories or "flashbacks." It's one of the first things we see, so we automatically perceive Adams' character as a secluded, traumatized and sad linguist, who has lost her daughter at a very young age.
However, Villeneuve's trick is not really a lie. From the moment that Louise begins to understand the language of the heptapods, her brain begins to be reconfigured. Perhaps the fact of being arguably the best linguist on the planet already allowed her to have glimpses of this ability to perceive time differently. The point is that the slow and progressive realization that those "flashbacks" are really flashforwards, is happening by both the viewer and the protagonist. And, in the process, we clearly understand the "gift" of the heptapods.
Towards the end of the film, Villeneuve again uses the resource to manage the information to reinforce his point. Louise must say something to General Shang to prevent the global communication with the heptapods from breaking down completely, and for that, she “remembers” her future, in which at a United Nations event, Shang finally meets her face to face, shares his phone number and his wife's dying words.
Those words aren't captioned, so unless you speak Mandarin, you won't be able to understand the phrase.
The huge paradox is that Mandarin is the most spoken language on the planet. Roughly 920 million people speak it. The second most spoken language (Spanish) is not even close. But even so, because of the dynamics of the world, because of the linguistic determinisms established by the most global cultures, it causes a Mandarin phrase without a caption to be "lost" internationally. The phrase in question is:
"In war, there are no winners, only widows."
And although its forcefulness resonates, what really impacts is precisely that hidden fact about our own language barriers.
Above all, Arrival is a call to appreciate life, without the bonds of time. Without the pressure of "what will happen" or "this has already happened."
Our terrible warlike, colonial record convinces a large part of the military and political power in Arrival that the aliens want to incite war among us, so they can be able to deal more easily with what's left. The heptapods and their circular vision of time, of course, are here to help us and help them at the same time.
Louise understands that she will have a daughter who will die at an early age and that her relationship with Ian will collapse when she reveals to him that she always knew that these events would happen.
But Louise doesn't even seem to enter much into the debate about whether or not her actions can modify the future she already knows. She seems to be feeling completely free in her decision to follow the familiar path, so she can enjoy the thousands of moments (happy and sad) with those people in her life. It's the purest definition of acceptance.
"Life's a journey, not a destination," says an old cliché. But on Arrival, that cliche invites action. That's evident in the circular language (and, consequently, actions) of the heptapods. Destiny simply disappears when we have the power to remember the future.
Critic Iñaki Ortiz describes it very well: “Time not only influences our way of thinking but it also influences our way of feeling. Without the time variable, nostalgia and longing are the same things.”
Arrival's sci-fi is one of the most revolutionary in recent memory. Only gems like 2001: A Space Odyssey precede it. Why? because Arrival, again and again, invites us to dismantle absolutes. Really entrenched aspects such as how we conceive language and time, are rethought.
And, in that process, lies the invitation to imagine what perhaps is the key to evolving as humanity.
© 2019 Sam Shepards