Let’s get preliminaries out of the way. Arrival is an instant classic in the science fiction genre. Accordingly, this musing on it is entirely composed of spoilers. If this bothers you, watch the film first. Quotes are as close as I can easily get them. While I have read Story of Your Life, the amazing Ted Chiang novella that this is adapted from, I will not discuss it here since Arrival stands alone very well and I tend to find page-to-screen discussion tiresome at best. The meat of the post begins below the fold.
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i1Retrieved from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Prospero.
Time after time I think that the most improbable conceit of Arrival is not its towering alien lifeforms, or their three thousand-year plan for mutual aid, or even the capacity of their non-ordered language to install human consciousness into a shocking holistic perspective. Looking at our modern world, the plot element that is the most radical departure is the resolution: an act of radical trust, and its reciprocation, and the tumbling dominos of trust and trust as entire nations, with all their military and intelligence apparatuses, drop the armor of secrecy and caution to cooperate in a sudden revolution not just in geopolitics but in human nature.
In this climactic sequence, the world hangs in the balance. Nation after nation has come to believe that the alien vessels (12 of them, with 11 different nations projecting control over the sites) have come for a purpose involving weapons. Whether humans think the heptapods are here to use a weapon, give it, or take something in trade, nearly every person who has talked to these beings has deeply misapprehended their purposes. Those that haven’t were shunted to one side or summarily dispatched. General Shang (Tzi Ma) has decided to take leadership of a united (yet divided) humanity, declaring that the affairs of humans are our own to decide and that no alien interloper has the right to enter our private world in such a flagrant way. He tells them (or so he thinks) to leave our house, or be kicked out, whether or not we would actually have the capability to evict these interstellar travelers.
Shang’s actions and motivations are deeply believable and sympathetic, and unlike most military aggressors in these kinds of stories, he chooses correctly. He doesn’t have the requisite knowledge to come to the best conclusion, but given his beliefs about his options he makes the most moral choice available. The character who does have the right knowledge, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), sees that the heptapods have come for coordination, and that the potential for gain is much greater if the 11 nations share their interactions.
Her consciousness, jumping between different points of her life as she struggles to guide it to the right moments2A second viewing very much supports my reading here, I believe; ideas connect and guide Banks between the two most pivotal moments of Arrival, and you see her tension and effort clearly. To me her positioning in time at this point is no longer either accidental or guided by someone else, but completely autonomous., allows hindsight to become foresight, and Shang provides her with a ‘cheat code’ for gaining both his understanding and trust. Banks doesn’t tell him at all what to do, simply displaying what she can do, but he is able to very quickly realize the depths of his previous errors and correct them. China’s unilateral reversal of course inspires the other nations to join in sharing their knowledge, and at this time, the aliens’ purpose is finished.
They depart the earth; their cloud-capped towers melt into thin air.
It’s a beautiful, mysterious, thrilling sequence. The actual arrival of the aliens happens off screen, and their method of appearance is unmentioned. We have a reasonable guess that they appear simultaneously (“just learned that there are at least eight other vessels”). We only hear about them once they are already in place; no mention of radar tracking their entry, no shot of meteors transitioning in vessels. My instinct is that the ships arrive much as they depart, from nothing into nothing, their origins and destinations unimportant compared to their role on Earth. Shakespeare’s soliloquy gives a triple image for this: the phantasmal performers, the literary work, and the lives of all people are brief, and capped on either end, infinitely, by something that has little relation to the middle.
“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” Banks asks this in the denouement, at the climax of the “B” story. At this point, we have many parallels between Banks’s experience of life and our experience of a creative work. Instead of being confined to a single front to back perspective she can jump around to different chapters, page back and forth, even check carefully between two sections to make sure they correspond. She can read the ending as easily as the beginning. This fictional analogy works better than conceiving of her perspective as self-omniscience.
Banks experiences segments linearly, and keeps other parts in her mind as she lives in the moment. She is still a person who lives in an order, she just has an order that ‘jumps’ compared to the usual human experience. And when she decides3Though some might question the applicability of decisions in a world where you can actually see the ‘future’, whatever that may be, my personal belief of what human decisions are allows for Bank’s actions to be the result of her decisions. Perhaps I will have more on this later. to experience her life with her doomed daughter and her doomed relationship with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she does so knowing the ending though she is thrilled to see the details. She is like someone who picks up and reads a classic despite having it spoiled long ago, and who laughs at the jokes and jolts at the twists that she already knows must come.
Let’s take inspiration from Louise Banks’s jumping around, and go back to General Shang. He tells Banks the personal phone number he had 18 months previously, and tells her what she said to him, the same words uttered by his dying wife. From the Mandarin:
In war, there are no winners, only widows.
The translation is unimportant in my opinion, since most viewers will not be Mandarin speakers (I only know enough Mandarin to translate the “Xie xie… xie xie.” he follows with as “Thank you… thank you.”). It feels more like an Easter egg than a critical point of the plot. What matters is by that repeating these words to General Shang, Banks performs Arrival’s ultimate show of force. Yes, in a film that has military standoffs, rogue bombings and posturing by world leaders to show the aliens that ‘we mean business’, the most effective show of force is simply some words. With these words she shows Shang exactly what power she has, and Shang, tactic genius that he is, correctly interprets the new balance of power and adjusts accordingly. They are suddenly playing a different game than before4Mathematically and politically, this new game still has incentive for someone to hold out. If one nation decides not to share, or to give altered versions of its own information, while still gaining the other nations’ information, they will hold an amazing advantage. This might be mitigated by threats of war, but could also be leveraged for increased influence or wealth. That’s why every one of the 11 nations deciding to share counts as my biggest stretch in believing Arrival’s plot, but since I can overcome that hesitation with hopefulness I’ll do that..
Too often people think of language primarily as something that tells. Often, perhaps more often, it is somethings that shows, performs, enacts; many more verbs can be associated with the speaking act than “said”, “told”, or “asked”. Information has a real power to it. Banks enlightens and demonstrates with her phone call: somehow, she knows something that she could not possibly know. Good chunks of Arrival deals with the blurred distinction between tools and weapons, and no other scene better demonstrates this.
The old cliché of having a hammer and seeing only nails pops up in the film; I am reminded of various historians of the Second World War who examine the end game of the Pacific campaign and determine that the United States took too many islands from the Japanese. This theory suggests that the US knew that its goal was, had to be, direct assault on the Japanese mainland, at first by bombing campaigns and if those failed to force surrender, a full scale invasion. So they should have taken enough islands in a chain to have a forward position that allowed them to effectively assault the mainland, with support and safety. But the US took many more islands than that, included many that had no strategic value and could no longer project force. The same force that had taken sufficient islands to accomplish its goals went on to take more islands, spending more lives and treasure unnecessarily, because it had honed itself into a fine island-taking machine.
When we think of language just as a tool for information conveyance, we limit ourselves to just that hammer, and try to use it even when we’ve already done everything useful that we can with it. There are some conversations that don’t call for explanations. A common tactic of those who seek to limit the power of words is to pish-posh honest and effective speech as too emotional, or, as the unlucky of you might have seen repeated, meme-like, “Not an argument.” Argument is a tool, a weapon; a notable exchange in this film comes between Banks and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker).
Weber wants to go hear from a linguist at Berkeley because Banks is being difficult. She asks him to inquire about the Sanskrit word for war, and its translation. Though it is obscured by helicopter racket (some poor sound mixing here; I only caught the first half on a second viewing), they exchange the results later. Weber tells her that this linguist gave the definition “argument”. Banks’s answer is “a desire for more cows”. How a non-linguist like the colonel is supposed to judge the competence of two linguists based on competing translations is unclear, but to me Banks shows her ability to look past the tool in use and focus on the goal in pursuit. This extends; over and over when others fixate on a method or tactic, she overleaps to a goal.
We have several analogies of ignoring the interposing, both narratively and visually. First of all, we have the interposing barriers that dominate so many of the wide shots of the alien sites: the rolling mists in Montana, the sea storms and haze of the Black Sea and Shanghai, and dust swirls in Sudan. They not only make for beautiful photography but also have clear symbolic aspects. Mists later play in the progression of the alien contact. At first the creatures appear so slowly from the mists, and are little revealed, but as more is learned about them, the less the mist hides them.
Less visually, the alien language is a tool, not a goal in itself; it helps Banks to achieve cooperation and coordination, and to achieve personal joy despite grief. The communication between Banks’s team and the aliens is shaped by many interposing tools: first the protective suits which are discarded as pointless, then the room divider. The humans assume that the divider keeps the air separated, and later the aliens use it to write on. But as we see later on, the aliens’ air is perfectly breathable, and they do not need a divider to write on at all!
So why a divider at all? To focus the human’s investigation, and to make them feel safe. Recall that the alien ships produce no radiation and that they arrived mysteriously and suddenly. The aliens did not want humans to waste their time studying, worrying about, something as pointless as the air that the aliens breathe. They are here for their purpose, and would like to get to that. The divider says, your side is safe for you, and my side is safe for me, even though it turns out that not having a divider is completely safe for all. It is a security blanket necessary for the untrusting 5An early conversation focuses on how the aliens could use their control over the atmosphere to kill the humans, even though doing so would be fairly pointless. but to the one willing to start off the domino process of human trust it can be dropped.With the divider between humans and aliens discarded, the divider between nations is not long for the world; what other dividers, invisible and unnecessary though used and depended on every day, do we have in our lives?
I’ve spent a lot of words on Louise Banks and her heroic qualities6The hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell and internalized by George Lucas, requires this from the hero: start in ignorance among her people, make a trek, meet a teacher, learn what her people do not know, acquire some totem of the trek, and return to her people to share the true gains of her journey, the knowledge. Arrival hits these marks without fail. but almost none on Ian Donnelly. What’s he even doing in this movie, ontologically?
Well, he’s the love interest. He has a couple of good but not plot-critical ideas, and he follows Banks’s lead when she wants him to. And later on he busts out a cheesy line to start (from his point of view) a romance. Some viewers might be surprised to see the roles of male scientist and love interest combined, since the love interest’s detachment from what’s really going on in a film is traditionally seen as a female kind of thing. Get used to it, I suppose I’d say. Watch a James Bond movie if you need some traditional gender roles.
Of all the parts of Arrival I could continue to dissect and analyze, I’ll close with this. Arrival has, nowhere in it, a single trace of cynicism. This is remarkable; we live, after all, in a very cynical time. Cynicism is in many subcultures a treasured quality, and lack of cynicism (naïveté, wishful thinking, foolishness, hopeless optimism…) is worth condemning. But here, even when people made hurtful decisions, they are treated with tenderness and empathy. Just examine the rogue soldiers and their bombing, and imagine how a Michael Bay or a Christopher Nolan might have shot their story. Maybe we would have seen their battle, or their punishment. Instead we see their determination, and compassion, and a sad doctor waving the situation off.
If you are living in a world where hope seems silly, and cooperation between current enemies seems far-fetched (as I write this it seems like us American progressives will be in such a world for a time to come), perhaps you can look back to Arrival to see a world ahead.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Retrieved from the Folger Shakespeare Library|
|2.||↑||A second viewing very much supports my reading here, I believe; ideas connect and guide Banks between the two most pivotal moments of Arrival, and you see her tension and effort clearly. To me her positioning in time at this point is no longer either accidental or guided by someone else, but completely autonomous.|
|3.||↑||Though some might question the applicability of decisions in a world where you can actually see the ‘future’, whatever that may be, my personal belief of what human decisions are allows for Bank’s actions to be the result of her decisions. Perhaps I will have more on this later.|
|4.||↑||Mathematically and politically, this new game still has incentive for someone to hold out. If one nation decides not to share, or to give altered versions of its own information, while still gaining the other nations’ information, they will hold an amazing advantage. This might be mitigated by threats of war, but could also be leveraged for increased influence or wealth. That’s why every one of the 11 nations deciding to share counts as my biggest stretch in believing Arrival’s plot, but since I can overcome that hesitation with hopefulness I’ll do that.|
|5.||↑||An early conversation focuses on how the aliens could use their control over the atmosphere to kill the humans, even though doing so would be fairly pointless.|
|6.||↑||The hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell and internalized by George Lucas, requires this from the hero: start in ignorance among her people, make a trek, meet a teacher, learn what her people do not know, acquire some totem of the trek, and return to her people to share the true gains of her journey, the knowledge. Arrival hits these marks without fail.|