This article contains major Arrival spoilers.
During the closing moments of the Oscar contender Arrival, they stand there in awe as the alien creatures who visited this planet vanish into the atmosphere, leaving behind only their mystifying “weapon.” While Dr. Louise Banks, the auburn-haired linguist played by Amy Adams, stares up to the sky, she is also quietly sharing a moment with Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a brilliant mathematician and her partner in all this madness. The two of them have only begun to intimately connect, and this is their final scene in the movie, yet we already know their whole life story. Their marriage, their daughter’s birth, and the death-to-come that will tear them apart.
In fact, as of this scene, it’s already happened. Or, at least it already happened for Louise. It’s complicated for us, but for her it’s as simple as the fact that she already knows the full implication of the visiting aliens’ gift. She’s currently writing her book, mourning the death of her unborn daughter, and still sharing that first moment of true connection with Ian. It’s all in the present, future, and past, concurrently.
So wait, how did this happen, again?! Well, let’s take a step back.
Arrival is a challenging piece of science fiction, blessedly meant for adults, and about smart grown-ups at that. The kind that actually try to solve problems instead of punching or shooting them. In fact, it is in many ways a spiritual companion piece with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar since it’s about intelligent people going through familiar sci-fi tropes before offering heady concepts about fifth dimensional space and/or time manipulation. And to be precise in the 2016 film’s case, Arrival is also the specific product of ideas related to linguistic relativity (aka the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), proving that intellectual curiosity is its own kind of superpower.
Sapir-Whorf is mentioned briefly in the film when Louise first starts having her breakdowns. Like many 21st century linguists, she views this double-named concept-paradigm (which is also first raised in the film by Ian) as naïve and impossible. Yet, this is exactly at the root from which Ted Chiang’s short story and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay have sprung from. Within the very first minute of Arrival, we watch the life and death of Louise’s daughter Hannah in a presumable “flashback,” even though the girl has yet to live.
For basic understanding, linguistic relativity refers to a concept in linguistics and cognitive science that suggests language can affect a person’s perception and cognitive worldview. At one point in the 20th century, some academics even argued that language unto itself can determine the way you understand the world; today’s advocates for this hypothesis now primarily argue that language merely influences your perception of the physical reality around you.
These sort of debates about the merits of language go back to the dawn of philosophical discourse. Plato famously argued against sophist thinkers’ assertion that the world has no meaning without language (Plato, in the antithesis of linguistic relativity, countered the world was made of eternal truths that language attempted to convey as much as humanely possible).
In the 20th century, Benjamin Lee Whorf built atop the concepts of Edward Sapir (among others, including 18th century German Romantics who used language as an excuse for cultural superiority) to suggest that language massively influences our basic understanding of the world, and thus would make actual 1:1 translation between vastly different cultures virtually impossible. To prove his point, he compared the language of North America’s Inuit and Hopi populations to common European languages. Arguing that since the Inuit language has numerous words for snow, and the Hopi have different words for water—such as the difference between water you drink and the water found in a lake—their understanding of the world on a granular level is fundamentally different from Europeans’ perceptions of even the basic attributes of nature.
Additionally, Whorf’s most contentious argument, and the most prescient to Arrival, was that Hopi natives previously had no concept of processing time through individual measurements. Unlike most other world cultures, Whorf suggested the Hopi did not breakdown time in a sequential order—such as Halloween occurred over one week ago or that the next presidential election will be in four grueling years from now. Thus their basic understanding of life varied greatly from “our” world. It should be noted that Whorf’s claims about the Hopi have been heavily disputed by archeological research, but the simple idea of conceiving of time differently from others, and this affecting your perception of reality, is indisputably present in Arrival.
As director Denis Villeneuve and Heisserer painstakingly establish throughout the narrative, the aliens (or “heptapods” as Ian and the military refer to them) have a written language that is drastically different from any form on Earth. Each symbol can convey a sentence or complex thought within a second, and is written from beginning and end simultaneously, creating a circular structure independent from spoken words. Incidentally, this also means their prose is borne from what we call Fermat’s principle (the mathematical law about taking the path which requires the least amount of time, such as how a ray of light travels).
Apparently, this form of written communication—one that is derived from a complicated, mathematical understanding of the universe—is the result of an alien species that perceives time far differently than we do. While it is unclear if they can actually enter fifth dimensional space (such as the major third act of Interstellar), heptapods view time in much the same way that theoretical and relativistic physicists have hypothesized fifth dimensional beings would. In theory, there could conceivably be a space where one views the three dimensions you and I already observe—width, height, and depth—as well as the fourth dimension that is present in our lives, but we have no control over: time. In such a space (or with such a perception as the kind enjoyed by the heptapods in Arrival), time is entirely viewable and traversable, such as how height is conquered when you walk up the stairs.
If this all sounds confusing, let Neil deGrasse Tyson explain it far better than I ever could by watching the below YouTube video about Paramount’s other sci-fi epic in recent years.
So if the heptapods can flip through their own timelines as easily as you might flip through the pages of a book, and they can transfer or share this perception via linguistic relativity, then mastering their language must allow Dr. Louise Banks to do exactly what Dr. Tyson talked about in the above video. She is always watching her daughter be born, watching the aliens fly away, and suffering through the “memory” of her daughter’s death.
This is explicitly depicted in the film when Louise uses different events throughout her life to affect other occurrences, regardless of their non-sequential order. We repeatedly witness Louise interact with events in the future and the present by being simultaneously aware of both. By talking with Ian in 2016 Montana about zero sum games, she is able to help her daughter Hannah with her homework in the future. And again, with perhaps the whole future of humanity (and the heptapods 3,000 years hence) at stake, she is able to discuss with the high Chinese General Shang the details of their fateful phone call from 18 months ago… while simultaneously having that conversation at gunpoint in Montana.
As the film’s major “twist” highlights, the flashbacks Louise is having of a daughter are actually experiences from her future. After the failed terrorist attack by rogue military personnel, Louise asks the heptapod nicknamed Costello about this strange little girl she keeps seeing. Only once she truly masters Costello’s language is she able to be there with Hannah while also still sharing a tender moment beneath the alien’s ship with the doomed babe’s father-to-be.
Now, there is likely a reading of Arrival which might argue that this means time is circular, and all things are predestined to occur in a certain way. That there is no free will.
It is the old “time is a circle” adage of science fiction. And for the record, Interstellar is very susceptible to this reading. However, Arrival is not. Rather, Villeneuve’s film (and the Chiang story it is based on) suggests free will and choice exists if one chooses to do nothing. Time is not immutable, hence why the aliens’ presence on Earth is still high stakes for them. Presumably heptapods have long lifespans if they can perceive events 3,000 years from now, but humanity will only save them if we as a species work together right now to learn what Louise’s future book coins as “The Universal Language.”
As the ending clarifies, Louise has a choice to allow events to occur as she currently perceives them… or to not let them happen in this way, sparing her the pain of losing a daughter she already deeply loves by denying that kid a chance to even exist. As fittingly revealed out of sequence, Louise asks Ian at the end of the film that if he could see the whole story of his life, would he allow events to transpire exactly as they do? He responds with a wishy-washy answer about how he isn’t sure right now. But we already know from a previous memory of the future that Louise and Ian’s marriage ends because she tells him too early about what she knows. As Louise vaguely explains with paternal love to Hannah, she told Ian about the choice she made, and he thought she chose wrong.
For Ian, watching Hannah die from an incurable disease made their whole marriage, and the whole story of their shared live, unendurable. However, as with most matters in regard to bringing life into this world, it was the woman’s choice. Louise’s choice. She chose to allow Hannah to be born, and as a result, she exercised her free will by enjoying her life story’s organic telling.
Whether this means she could consciously (re)live her life forever in a loop is unclear. That is one potential application for the gifted-weapon. And it seems we have 3,000 years to figure out how to use it well. This film certainly did.
This article was previously published on Nov. 15, 2016.