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Talking in Circles: A Movie Review of "Arrival" (Some Spoilers)

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner
as Dr. Ian Donnelly
Genesis chapter eleven records a story of the people of the ancient world electing to come together and build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens.  For reasons undisclosed to us mortals, God, having observed this concerted effort, which was apparently destined to succeed, scrambles communication between his peoples.  "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this," he says, "then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (New International Version, Gen. 11:6).  The engineer could not understand the architect.  The brick layer could not understand the engineer.  It was the last time all of humanity worked together in perfect cooperation.  It was the last time all of humanity spoke a common language.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, a universal language was clearly the key that could unlock unlimited progress, discovery, and achievement.  What if the communication of that ancient people had not been confused and discordant?  What problems could humanity have solved?  These are just two of the questions Denis Villeneuve's ""Arrival" leaves hanging in the air.

"Arrival" carries clear themes of the discord and imperfect communication between nations and peoples.  Amy Adams' character, Dr. Louise Banks - a world-class linguist - is abruptly summoned from her quiet and solitary professor's life to help determine why a series of alien vessels have arrived on Earth's surface.  While stationed with U.S. armed forces in close proximity to one of the alien vessels, Louise's linguistic abilities are somewhat utilized to decode foreign intelligence and to spy on the strategies of foreign dignitaries also working around the clock assess the alien threat.  However, Louise's most challenging task by far is to learn the language of the aliens - dubbed "Heptapods" - to a level of proficiency at which she can determine why they have come and what exactly it is they want from humanity.

Louise's journey to deciphering the Heptapod's language is laced with what appear to be memories of a somber past in which her teenage daughter passes away from a rare disease.  Now, here's where the spoilers come in...  As the audience comes to learn, these visions Louise continually has of her daughter are not glimpses of the past, but rather real events from the future that she can experience in a vivid way as she learns the language of the Heptapods.  You see, "Arrival" adopts the longstanding hypothesis that understanding a language can alter the way a person thinks.  After all, we all think in a certain language, dream in a certain language, and rely on linguistic markers to help us at least partially pin down nebulous, abstract concepts in concrete ways.  We can't convey ideas without words, so to what extent is the faculty of language tied to our thought processes?

Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly attempt to decipher a Heptapod glyph

The written language of the Heptapods is expressed through round, black symbols adorned with endless variations of swirls and tendrils.  The analogy used in the film to describe how the Heptapod language is written is that it's like writing with both hands at the same time, with no regard to top or bottom, forward or backward, left or right.  One would have to know all the words each hand is planning to write before beginning, and having the symbol conclude seamlessly.  The Heptapod language is not linear in any way, because the thoughts of the Heptapods are not linear.  Or, is it vice versa?  Which came first - the chicken or the egg?  This is a rhetorical question, as we all know.  The point is, as Louise learns the universal language the Heptapods intend to gift to the human race, her thoughts follow suit - they are no longer bound by time, and she is able not only to see moments in the future that give her the tools to dismantle worldwide hysteria and panic, but also to see her future family, which will include Jeremy Renner's character, Dr. Ian Donnelly, and their daughter, who will eventually die of a rare disease.

And now we have "arrived" (forgive the pun) at another profound question that the film asks audiences.  Many will feel, as did Ian Donnelly, that it's problematic that Louise could see the future, knew her daughter would develop a rare disease which would eventually kill her, and decides to go through with having that child with Ian anyway.  In fact, according to Louise, it is a decision that causes Ian to leave her once she shares what she has seen about their daughter's death.  However, earlier in the film, when Louise takes a terrifying risk in removing her HAZMAT suit inside the alien vessel, Ian decides to join her, flippantly saying something to the effect of: "Hey, we're all going to die anyway, right?"  It is such a perfectly placed, exquisitely ironic piece of dialogue that I only remembered after sitting through the entirety of the credits, overwhelmed, and trying to process what I'd just seen.  It's true - we're all going to die one day.  So then did Louise make a "wrong choice," as Ian claims, in deciding to go through with having a family, knowing what she did about her future daughter's death?

Lastly, the ideas in "Arrival" carry extreme significance for people of faith.  If you know the story of the Tower of Babel, you may also be familiar with the story of the Fall, in which mankind throws away paradise for the knowledge of good and evil.  We people of faith, much to our chagrin, have no way of knowing exactly how far the damaging ripples of this choice extend, but it is safe to say that language itself became broken and imperfect as a result of this divorce.  It is not far-fetched to imagine that one day, when creation is new and we are new, that communication will be perfected.  Imagine being able to speak not just with words but in immaculate, complete images, as well as being able to implant those images/ideas/concepts whole and perfect into the mind of all those around you.  For me, personally, "Arrival" is not a film about aliens.  It's a film about what we can look forward to.  Wait and see if I am right.

The non-linear storytelling of "Arrival" is executed to breathtaking effect.  "Arrival" is a near-perfect film, with a sparse but haunting soundtrack, not a few tricks borrowed from Kubrick, and acting so sincere and - notably, admirably - void of glamour and drama, that one forgets one is watching a film.  "Arrival" feels very much like something out of our very near future.

Some will say the film is slow-moving - not me, but some will.  If you even occasionally go to the movies to be made to think, I dare you to walk away from "Arrival" not humbled.  The intellectual territory it dares to tread in the midst of much cinematic white noise from Hollywood makes "Interstellar" feel like a bedtime story.  (No offense, Christopher Nolan - I love your work.)  My only regret is that Tolkien - my personal favorite and indeed the most famous and well-loved linguist the world over - could not see this film.  Although, perhaps where he is now, free of limitations, language perfected isn't a hypothesis - it's reality.


  1. Talking about circles, what did General Shanghai say to Louise when he gave her his phone number so, I think, she could either use them or say them back to him 18 months earlier to halt developing World War III?

    1. Well, I'm not sure who is responsible for generating the content in the "Trivia" section of IMDb-listed films, but according to that, General Shang said: "In war, there are no winners, only widows."


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