Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at a university. Adapted from a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival begins when an alien spacecraft lands in Montana. The extraterrestrial beings in the spacecraft are called heptapods because of their seven legs. Louise is called by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Witaker) to help establish contact with the heptapods and decipher their language, as on previous occasions she had helped them translate Farsi. Louise is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together, they work to find the heptapods’ purpose of coming to earth. In Gravity, there was a mother who was dealing with the overpowering grief of her daughter’s death. In Arrival, too, we see flashbacks of Louise’s daughter who succumbed to a disease, but when the film ends, we realize that her story is far too complicated to follow a linear pattern.
Linguistics and language is the core theme of Arrival. The film is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—the theory that the structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is widely disputed among the linguists but of late, there is empirical evidence that supports a weaker version of the theory which states that language can have a small effect on cognition. When Louise interacts with the heptapods, she starts dreaming in their language. We believe that, perhaps, she is overworked, which is why she is seeing flashbacks from her past. But what happens is that Louise’s brain gets rewired so that she is able to communicate with the heptapods without any help. Like the time when she goes onto the spaceship after the blast, and she communes with Costello without using any computing devices. She understands what they are saying. The flashbacks were actually flash-forwards, which made her perceive time like the heptapods. While this is the central theory in the film, Louise also shares interesting anecdotes and the science about the language. She tells us that Portuguese originated in the kingdom of Galicia, and it sounds different from other Romance languages. In the Middle Ages, language was seen as an expression of art. Avatar depicted a new language Na’vi. Likewise, a language based on logograms was created for Arrival.
At some point towards the final moments in Arrival, Louise’s daughter asks her why she was named ‘Hannah’. Louise replies that her name is very special as it is a palindrome; it reads the same forward and backward. Few moments later, the film’s twist is revealed where it is shown that conversing with the heptapods gave special powers to Louise with which she could see the future. In many ways, the whole premise of Arrival is also based on a palindrome. At first instance, it might not seem so, but if evaluated on the lines of the twist, the concept of the movie being a palindrome holds true. A palindrome is a word, a verse, a sentence or a number that reads the same backward or forward. The most prominent indicator of the movie’s palindromic subtext is the film’s ending, or should it be called the beginning. The story of Louise as seen in the film does not follow a normal linear trajectory. Initially, we see scenes of Louise having a daughter, who dies due to cancer. Then, it appears that Louise takes us on a flashback. We believe them to be Louise’s past. Ultimately, it is revealed that all these scenes were not in the past time, but are actually part of her future time. In the initial moments of the film, Louise says, “I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, its order. I remember moments in the middle. And this was the end. But I am not sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” Likewise, the movie has no clear ending and beginning. If the order of its scenes was reversed, it would still make a perfectly fine story.
Related to the palindromic context, there is a certain lack of defined direction in the film. At one later stage in the film, Ian explains the research that he and his team had done on heptapods. Unlike all human languages, the writing of the heptapods is semasiographic. It conveys meaning, but it does not represent sound. The heptapods communicate using logograms—a circular form of writing that resembles ink-blots. The logograms, unlike speech, are free of time. In the sense that one has to know the full sentence before writing a logogram, where as in human language, this need not be true. The logograms have no forward or backward direction, and linguists call it a form of non-linear orthography. Like their language, the bodies of the heptapods and even their ship have no forward or backward. They think non-linearly, and perceive time non-linearly. Thus, there is a palindromic subtext not only in the film’s story, but also in heptapods, with no easily identifiable beginning or ending. There is non-linearity, or circularity, whatever we may prefer to call it, underscored dominantly in the film. There is a moment in the film, when after the death of her daughter, Louise is walking all by herself in the corridor of the hospital, that is designed in a circular way, providing another hint at the film’s circular motif.
When the film ends, it forces us to go back to all the other signs that were present in the film about time being non-linear, like the way we read a palindrome backwards to make sure if it reads the same. At one stage during the middle portion of the film, Louise’s daughter plays with clay and makes a few animals. One of the clay animals she makes is a heptapod. If her daughter was in the past, she could not have made a heptapod. There are other colored drawings that her daughter makes. In one of them, she draws a man, a woman and a bird, and she says, “Mommy and daddy talk to animals.” This was actually being compared to the time when Louise and Ian talked to the heptapods, and they used to always take a bird in a cage when they went to communicate with the heptapods, which is what Hannah drew.
The heptapods landed their spaceships at twelve different places on earth, including Pakistan. The scientists in the film are not able to find any decipherable reason of them landing at those twelve specific places. While explaining about heptapods and logograms, Ian specifically thanks ‘our friends in Pakistan’. I think Pakistan is put because of its connection with the Indus Valley Civilization. The Harappan script remains undeciphered but, similar to the logograms, it is assumed to have elements of non-phonetic symbols. Perhaps, that was the reason of including Pakistan, and also the map shows the heptapods landed in Punjab, Pakistan, where, in fact, the Indus Valley Civilization was based.
When Louise and Ian are able to establish communication with the heptapods, they name them Abbott and Costello. In Ted Chiang’s story, the aliens are called Flapper and Raspberry, so I was a little curious as to if there was any rationale behind choosing those specific names. One of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies is named Abbott, so maybe there was something related to it. But some researchers have pointed out that naming the heptapods as Abbott and Costello is a reference to the comedy duo with the same name, whose most famous routine Who’s On First is based on language and miscommunication, much like the film’s linguist theme.
There is a beautiful moment in the film when Ian tells Louise that she treats language like a mathematician. He did not realize that there could be a lot more complexity in language, and he jokes that he is single because he does not get communication. Unlike science-fiction films such as Interstellar, where sometimes the physics gets a little overwhelming at places, Arrival focuses more on the linguistics. It is not a coincidence that even Interstellar had a linguistic connection where at some stage, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) hacks a drone of the Indian Air Force where he used Sanskrit as the coding language. There is a Sanskrit connection in Arrival, too, which would later point to one of the biggest flash points in the film.
Early in the film, Colonel Weber asks Louise to translate an audio recording of the language of the mysterious creatures who have arrived on earth. Louise says that unless she sees and interacts with them, she cannot understand it. Colonel thinks she is lying and trying to join their mission, and he says he is going to the next candidate at Berkeley. When he is about to leave, Louise tells him that before he commits to the next candidate, he should ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation. Colonel decides to come back and tells her that the Berkeley candidate believed that the Sanskrit word for war is Gavisti, that means an argument. Louise says that it means a desire for more cows. It is a fascinating scene. From my limited knowledge of learning Sanskrit in school, I always thought Yuddham was the word for war in Sanskrit. At another stage, Louise tells Weber a story, which is still believed to be true, of how kangaroos were so named. When James Cook landed in Australia, a sailor asked the Aborigines what the hopping animals with pouches were called. One of the Aboriginal people replied that it was a kangaroo, which meant ‘I don’t know‘ but was misinterpreted as the name of the animal. The larger point that these scenes make is that there can be different interpretations of the same word. Later in the film, this point again comes back. After Louise and Ian are able to communicate with the heptapods, they ask them their purpose of coming to earth. The heptapods respond and Louise interprets it as ‘offer weapon’ which makes the defence establishment think that the heptapods were here for creating a war-like situation among the different countries. Louise defends the heptapods as she thinks language, like culture, is messy, and sometimes, one word can have two meanings. Scientists from other countries also believe that hepatapods meant ‘use weapon’. It is only after Louise really learns the heptapods’ language, she figures it out that the heptapods did not mean weapon, instead they talked about a gift. The weapon is a gift.
The gift that the heptapods talked about carries a profound meaning, especially at a time when the world is moving towards more isolationism. At some point, Colonel Weber reminds Louise of what happened to the Aborigines; a more advanced race nearly wiped them out. Later, Costello tells Louise that their purpose is to help humanity, and they are offering her and the others a gift, as in three thousand years, they will need humanity’s help. The larger point that the film makes is that if the human race is to survive, we need to talk to each other, and collaborate with each other. We need to speak and learn each other’s language, because in some point in the future, humanity will be under threat, and a more advanced race (or a natural disaster such as climate change) can wipe out humanity. Instead the nations are indulging in their own specific narrow interests and fighting with each other. Hence, the film focuses on the criticality of non-zero-sum games.
In game theory, a zero-sum game is a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of a utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In contrast, a non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties’ aggregate gains and losses can be less than or more than zero. In Arrival, all the twelves different countries where heptapods landed were indulging in zero-sum games. For instance, in the film, Russia killed their own scientist when it found out that he sent a message to other sites. The Chinese spoke to the heptapods using mahjong, a game like chess where every idea expressed is in terms of victory or defeat, like a zero-sum game. Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) also advises to keep their research to themselves, without sharing it with their ‘enemies’. He gave examples from history that talked about the divide and rule policy that the British used in India, and the Germans used in Rwanda to make different factions fight among themselves so that only one prevails. He says, “We are a world with no single leader.” All these are zero-sum games, while Louise and Ian advocated that the purpose of the heptapods is related to non-zero-sum games. The heptapods landed at twelve sites and the one in Montana was only one of twelve. Similarly, different countries are also a part of the larger human race. We need to help each other instead of fighting among ourselves. Many need to become one to work for a win-win situation. We need to trade information with each other (as the world moves towards more protectionism). Louise is able to stop the war by telling the Chinese leader General Shang his wife’s dying words, “In war there are no winners, only widows.” Likewise, we are fighting a war with each other in which there are no winners. And, for that, we need to speak and communicate with each other. It is only then we will learn to stop misinterpreting things that are not actually meant. Hence, language is such a critical part of the film’s theme. The Russian scientist sends the message that the heptapods told him that we have all been given weapons. The weapons are misinterpreted. What the heptapods meant that we all have been gifts. These gifts are the ability to speak and communicate with each other to come together because there is no time.
In her future, Louise writes a book on her conversation with the heptapods. The book is titled Universal Language, again, underscoring the importance of humanity speaking a universal language. In her thesis, Louise had written, “Language is the foundation of the civilization. It is the glue that holds the people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” Ian disagreed with her as he believed that the cornerstone of any civilization is not language, but science. Louise, eventually, proved him wrong, and this statement was also the profundity of Arrival.
In the film’s final moments, when we are trying to make sense of Louise’s life, she tells us, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things? Despite knowing the journey where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.” It is a thought-provoking question. Despite knowing that we all have a limited time on earth, and we will die at some point, we are so afraid of embracing the vagaries of life, that we avoid living life to its fullest. Everyone in the film asks the heptapods, “What is your purpose?” Perhaps, it is also a question that the film is telling us that we should ask ourselves. As Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in life are the day you born and the day you discover the reason why.”
(To read more of the author’s work, log onto his blog: http://dichotomy-of-irony.blogspot.in)