Film: Arrival (2016)

Arrival of Perception: Daily lessons to learn from non-linear time.

Arrival is a film about perception, disguised as a film about alien contact. In his film, director Denis Villeneuve outlines a theory that the key to unlocking greater perception could be our mode of communication. He goes on to contemplate whether knowledge of future events is a blessing or a curse. In doing so his film questions the responses to such enlightened perception.

A portrait of a life

The film opens, much like the Pixar film Up,  with a mini-film, only minutes long. The resultant scenes encapsulate the lifetime of the daughter of the two main protagonists, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly. This short segment depicts their daughter’s life from her birth to her death from illness in her late teens/early twenties. The film goes on to intersperse shorter scenes from the daughter’s life with gradually increasing frequency.

The twist in the film comes three-quarters of the way through its running time. This is when we discover that the opening scenes did not depict a flashback on Louise’s part but rather an insight into future events.

Premise within Premise

The film’s superficial premise addresses the landing of 12 extra-terrestrial spacecraft on assorted locations across Earth. Louise is drafted in by the US Military to broker their engagement with the alien life-forms inhabiting the spacecraft referred to in the film as “heptapods”.

The ability to foresee time not as a linear A to B concept, but instead as a fluid concept into which one can propel one’s mind to see future events, is bestowed on Dr. Banks by those heptapods. They do this through her gradual understanding of their language, which they refer to as a “weapon” or a “tool”. Following this, she becomes aware of its subtleties and nuances. As this occurs, so her mind begins to follow the same trajectory as the heptapods. With that, she gains insight into future events.

The film suggests that the way a person uses language and communicates can have a bearing on the way their mind works. This also is conveyed in microcosm in the distinctions between the negotiation and communication style of the other countries around the world. We see how this has a bearing on the individual outcomes of their contact with the heptapods.

Sign of the times

This variety of international outcomes and communication styles signposted in the film is not accidental. The film displays a deep understanding of the concept of semiotics (the definition of culture through symbolic activity). The film uses the heptapods’ creation of signs and a way of conveying insight into their culture and skill set. Not mathematics (Contact), not melody (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) but signage denoting their cultural knowledge. The heptapod’s linguistic weapon/tool is relayed by way of symbolism. Louise’s unlocking of those symbols, in turn, unlocks the mystery of their civilization.

Its worth noting two additional, but related, points. The first is that Louise succeeds in engagement with the hetapods where the mathematicians failed. In the film she advocates a stance that it is important to “talk to them before we throw equations at them“. Secondly, but as importantly, she employs the gift of future foresight bestowed on her by the heptapods to engage with the Chinese general on an emotional and personal level (by relaying the words of his dying wife). In fact in engaging with both the heptapods and Chinese she succeeds where others have failed. She does this by using effective personal communication, not force or threats. Its also significant that this is a female lead engaging with both external parties. Neither of these factors should be seen as accidental. This in a film in respect of which the screenwriter and produce had to repeatedly fend off calls to move towards a big action-invasion film where a human punches an alien at the end.

Responses to foresight

The benefit of Louise’s enhanced insight in the film is her ability to see value of time as a precious resource. The film makes it clear that recognizing time as an extremely limited resource increases one’s appreciation of it. It does this through its handling of Louise’s daughter’s life. In this, the film ploughs a similar field to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film also addresses similar concepts of time and its passage, as well as the perception and distortion of its passage, can have on the parent-child relationship.

The  knowledge of their daughter’s future presumably splits the parents who each handle this differently.

The benefit of foresight

Louise who has been gifted with insight into future events is at the same time (presumably) unable to alter their course. She treats her advanced knowledge of her daughter’s fate as cause to treasure every moment of her child’s life, to make the most of their allocated time together. Each moment is appreciated. While day-to-day travails may impinge on this on occasion, one gets the impression that Louise gives her daughter almost undivided attention, that her life is enhanced, and that her daughter’s short life is, in turn, enhanced through a fully committed and dedicated mother.

The tragedy of foresight

By contrast, Ian, with the more formally trained scientific mind, cannot handle the knowledge of future events in this way. Instead, the knowledge of his daughter’s fate is laced with tragedy. The film implies that he cannot bring himself to watch his daughter grow, is heartbroken and is protecting himself from an attachment that he knows he is destined to lose. He presumably cannot become reconciled with his wife over her decision to make him aware of her insight into the future death of their daughter. Despite this, his daughter is in no doubt that he loves her and Louise is clear when she tells her daughter how much she is loved by Ian.

“Time is a jet plane…”

The conclusion from the film is to live in the moment. How many times do we worry about things that never transpire? The things that have happened and which can’t be undone? How many of us ignore our loved ones or friends to watch something on television, or look at a smart phone or tablet?

The film forces the viewer to confront these questions. It conveys the fact that our time is limited. It stresses that time will pass quickly and there is an importance of stopping to take stock. There is an importance in treasuring the little moments. The film shows us these little moments. It shows us Louise and her daughter playing in the garden, drawing and playing at the table together. Those are the important things says the film. The moments to treasure. They are the things to recall when looking back at life.

This is similar to the contemporary concepts of mindfulness or living in the moment. This film lays them out for us in clear terms. Ian and Louise know that their daughter will live for around 20 years. Louise conveys the message that you should acknowledge this. You should do all you can to make the most of that short time together. Make the memories. Treasure the time together.

The now Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan sang that “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. Oh, but what a shame that what we have can’t last.

Arrival is an important film. This is an age that focuses on activity, current affairs, and instantaneous communication. This film is telling us not to forget to pause and reflect. It shows us the importance of enjoying the brief time we have with friends and family.

Editor’s Note: Images subject to copyright and can be removed upon request.

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