Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
In all honesty, I wouldn’t have imagined a film about linguistic theory and communication to be so utterly compelling. If you see the posters declaring this to be a film about the arrival of alien visitors and expect some action packed thriller akin to Independence Day or The War of the Worlds, you will be very disappointed. Arrival has more in common with films like The Abyss or 2010: The Year We Make Contact. It’s a film where some foreign element inserts itself in the middle of the story, but in the end, it’s ourselves we learn about.
The film follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistic expert who is called in by the U.S. government to discern a means of communication with a mysterious extraterrestrial species that comes to be known as Heptapods. In this endeavor she is aided by astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is baffled by the idea that the aliens don’t seem to understand algebra. The main tension of the film is whether or not Louise can understand the aliens before fear and impatience get the better of an international community facing its own deficits of understanding.
Now, since I focus on the philosophy of the films I review, I won’t spend a lot of time on general criticisms, but one seems apt. Ian Donnelly and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) both apparently exist primarily as a tool to ask questions of Adams’ character, and thus act as proxies for those of us in the audience ignorant of basic linguistics. That Renner ends up being a love interest is inconsequential. Had these two characters been combined into an Army colonel who teaches physics at West Point or something, nothing would have been lost. Both characters demonstrate the same basic faith in Banks’ ability to get the job done, as well a basic concern for her when the stress of the job seems to be overtaking her. If a film employs two separate characters it seems they should serve different purposes. Having different jobs does not a distinction make, but as we’ll see, the film in general is a bit lacking in economy of purpose.
As it is, an almost throw away line by Renner is the hidden key to understanding the entire arc of the film. He mentions having heard of a theory of language that states when one becomes immersed in a language it changes the way one sees the world. Language structures reality. The theory being referenced is known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” You may have heard that Eskimos have numerous words for snow, this theory argues that having those words changes the way Eskimos see snow such that they are more able to discern differences than those of us in linguistic traditions where our snow vocabulary is limited. Despite a certain intuitive plausibility to this line of reasoning, contemporary linguistics generally rejects it, favoring instead the existence of universal, biological structures that make languages as different as Chinese and English essentially grammatically similar.
I’m not a linguist, and there is a limit as to what I could contribute to the conversation. I will share my own experience of this theory which occurred while teaching an Introduction to Philosophy class. When discussing ontology with those new to philosophy, I always use the example of attempting to define the concept “chair” in order to demonstrate the difficulties we can encounter in understanding how we divide our world. So the desk is not a chair, even though I can sit upon it. But why not? I lead them through a series of examples, bringing out clearer and clearer definitions meant to distinguish chairs from everything that is not a chair. One question I ask, “Is my couch a chair?” usually is met with a resounding “no.” But one semester a student from Vietnam looked at me and said, “Well, in Vietnamese we don’t have a separate word for couches, they’re all just chairs.”
I should say that I do not speak Vietnamese, and I cannot confirm that this is true. But it is a perfect illustration of the theory being employed in Arrival... sort of. Even if we grant that different languages will allow for different ways of seeing and understanding the world, Arrival pushes this to a place that challenges our ability to suspend disbelief. The Heptapods employ a written language where sentences appear circular. Louise describes it as knowing every word in a sentence before you write it and then writing it from both directions simultaneously. As she immerses herself in the language, this linguistic pattern begins to have profound impacts on Adams’ character, namely she can see the future, and this gets us to the point of the film.
All of this sci-fi/linguistics plot is set against a backdrop introduction of Louise Banks talking to her daughter in some dream like flashback. Almost immediately we learn the daughter grows up to contract a rare form of cancer that kills her as a teen. While we are led to believe through the magic of story telling that this is an event in the past, clues are dropped almost immediately that in fact it is in the future. Basically, the entire sci-fi storyline is set up to force Amy Adams into the existential choice of whether or not to have her child knowing the tragic end she faces. I almost immediately started checking the credits for M. Night Shyamalan’s name.
(A worthy critique of this film would be to explore the way in which, despite being 80% about a woman who is at the top of her scientific field, it suddenly becomes a film about whether a woman loves her child enough to perpetually choose being a mother. It’s not a critique I will pursue, but one gets a little tired of films believing that whether or not to have a child is the primary, if not only, existential choice women face.)
Still Arrival is a better film than Shyamalan typically makes (killer tree wind? Seriously?) Ted Chiang, the author of the short story the film is based upon, which I have not read, sells this fundamentally as a story about free will. But the film doesn’t force this question at all. There’s no struggle with the idea of whether or not she even could change the future if she wanted to. Instead we get the idea that she was suddenly able to see time in the same circular depiction as that of the Heptapod language, and embraced it.
For anyone who knows the history of philosophy well, this is clearly a Nietzschean move. The 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche postulated a theory of time he referred to as the “eternal return of the same.” The idea being that everything that ever has happened will happen again an infinite number of times. It’s not a postulate of physics, however, nor even metaphysics. It is instead an ethical test.
In one of his most famous pieces of writing, Nietzsche invites us to imagine being visited by a demon who tells us that every moment of our lives, tragic or heroic, extraordinary or mundane, will be repeated infinite amount of times, that we will have to live this life over and over and over again. And he asks simply for our response to it? He suspects most of us would live in terror of such a fate, but a few, strong, psychologically healthy individuals might affirm it, even long for it.
We’re asked to imagine this fate through Adams decision to keep her child despite knowing exactly what will happen. She even says at the end of the film, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” For Nietzsche, if you would change things, it is tantamount to willing that your life never existed: nihilism.
For Nietzsche, most of the history of humanity is colored by the inability to affirm the tragic nature of life. This leads us to be nihilistic in the worst possible sense. We begin to long for the world yet to come or some sort of divine judgment that ends the tragic nature of life. Or perhaps we just long for the infinite nothingness of death. In either case, both thoughts are escapist fantasies put forward by those too weak to handle the beautiful, illogical, tragedy of life as it presents itself, at least according to Nietzsche.
We see that Louise’s eventual husband Ian, the child’s father, will, upon learning of it, be horrified and leave her and the child out of a basic inability to handle the tragic nature of it all. Who are we? Am I the kind of person who would put myself through immense sorrow in order to experience a moment’s joy? Or would I shy away, cower from such reality? Is this life worth the trouble?
These are good questions, but the main problem with the film is that this profound existential question comes after two hours of linguistic theory and science fiction suspense. Therefore it’s not entirely explored, or even made very clear. It’s there, to be sure. It is even what the entire film exists to ask, but I don’t expect most people walk out of Arrival asking this question. Instead they talk about the linguistic stuff, which is fine, but missing the point. In the end, I think despite being well acted and engaging, this film is a bit of a failure because it seems to obscure its main point with a lavish complexity, rather than highlighting it in its simplicity. And that is a failure of communication.