Is time really linear and sequential like our writing? Or could it be, for a more advanced awareness, circular: a spherical sum of simultaneities? When past and future become perceptible and intertwined, is the present any more tangible than the emotion of a flashback or the knowledge of a glimpse forward? Is a vision, a revelation, any less “real” than what we call immediate “objective” reality?
If we were able to see into the future, would we still choose to live it? Can something or someone, once it has existed, ever slip into non-existence? And if time as we imagine it really does not exist, then are possession and ownership really possible or consequential? Can anything (especially time, loved ones) really be gone and lost forever? Or is everything and everyone just a gift.
Is conflict (especially armed conflict) anything else than the ludicrous, petty and futile attempt of an inferior understanding to “protect” an illusory here-and-now? What is the meaning of “weapon”?
Under the guise of a sci-fi action movie/thriller à la Independence Day, Arrival is the poetic unravelling of all these philosophical questions. Enigmatic and dreamy – and played beautifully in all its eeriness by Amy Adams – it ditches the fetishization of science for the more ethereal challenges of language – this system of arbitrary sounds and signs that we take for granted and which reflects, shapes, and limits the way we understand the world.
The film provides an almost mystical fusion of spirituality (albeit more understated) and science (linguistics, mathematical modelling) to challenge many common-sense notions and reawaken us to that foundational sentence: “In the beginning, there was the Word.”
The heroine, Louise Banks, a reputed linguist, is required by the U.S. government to help the armed forces communicate with an alien life form that has materialized on Earth, in 12 different locations across the globe. She must figure out their communication system and translate from human to alien and back, in order to understand the visitors’ intentions. The process is complex. It becomes apparent that language – an element so overlooked by many of us on a daily basis – is in fact the ferment, the connector and the foundation making it all possible – from science to inter-species communication.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not mentioned for nothing. It states that the structure of the language we speak greatly influences how we think and behave, how we relate to the world and what sense we make of it. Mastery of a language goes beyond vocabulary and syntax. To internalize another language is to receive the gift of that culture’s schemata and scripts, of their way of perceiving, ordering and making sense of the world. It is always a window into a new, richer understanding of what might be out there.
The film raises some interesting questions from semiotics, about signs and how we attribute signification, about how we decipher speaker meaning to get to real understanding (does the human term “weapon” mean the same to the superior conscience and technology of the aliens – an instrument of death and destruction – or does it mean “tool”?).
We cannot communicate (verbally!) that which we cannot conceptualize. That which we have no word, no sign for. That which our brain has no notion for. Language is constitutive. It not only describes and reflects, it creates realities. But to understand fully, we need more than signs and words: we need meta-communication, para-verbal and non-verbal communication. A presence, an availability, a putting-ourselves-out-there, emotions, trust. Successful communication is taking a chance and moving closer to one another. To create that common reality. To enter each other’s understanding and “read” each other without the mediation of filters.
The alien “ships” are indescribable with our scientific knowledge and lexical fund; they are conundrums. They are present, but they do not literally “land”, since they float inexplicably at some distance above the Earth’s surface. They defy gravity, yet there is gravity inside. They emit no radiation and no waste. The creatures’ writing is circular, it would be like us writing with both hands from both directions at the same time and calculating the exact space we need to meet in the middle. This is a powerful metaphor of past, future and present meeting and intermingling in a multi-dimensional continuum, of left and right hemisphere (not only of the brain, but of the planet) collaborating, etc.
The antithesis between the strict authorization procedure by the military of basic word lists Louise wants to “teach” the heptapods and the incontinent, shallow, incessant speculation of news channels (leading to insecurity and outbursts of violence across the globe) are a poignant reminder of the grave responsibility borne by those who deal with and in words. “If all you give them is a hammer (…) everything will become a nail.” What we consider to be hard facts is often nothing more than an interpretation – namely, our interpretation of our perceptions. Getting to a more timeless truth requires not only interdisciplinarity, but also the simultaneous and collaborative inputs of all points of view within the same discipline, a multi-dimensional piecing together of complex threads, of different angles of looking at the problem.
It is only appropriate that the film allows a variety of different readings, too. As Romanian philosopher and essayist Andrei Plesu once wrote, the largest, most intriguing questions of life – such as what is time, what is the meaning and purpose of our existence, etc. – cannot be answered “geometrically”, because no answer would ever be exhaustive; they require parables, little stories where all facets of the truth can be brought to light without excluding others.
From a European and Christian perspective, the parallelism between the 12 alien ships (and their 12 pieces of the message) and the 12 Apostles is always at hand. As Louise begins to grasp the heptapods’ language and her awareness expands with this new understanding, as she is given visions, dreams and memories that cannot be clearly ordered on the time axis, as she finds herself solving a major conflict and preserving peace without the conscious awareness of what she had said, we are reminded of Pentecost, the glossolalia and the Holy Spirit alighting on the Apostles (as messengers, too, of a new gospel) and the Biblical verse: “… do not worry how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” Louise does not “learn” the language, she acquires it, she receives it like a gift. It begins to flow from within her, it begins to work within her almost below the level of consciousness.
Arrival also touches on the issue of prescience vs. predestination. When Louise receives the gift of seeing into the future – as heptapods do – she is confronted with all the coming pain, yet she never for one moment is devoid of choice. Ian’s question “Want to make a baby?” drives home that point. She could still say no. She obviously still has free will, and she can make her own choice, but the beauty and fascination of life and love, and her newfound sense of the overlapping and bidirectional nature of time make it an almost inescapable choice.
A mysterious, cathartic movie for all those searching for a richer meaning beyond the here and now, Arrival also brings back some of the lost glamour and appreciation for the complexities of being a (good and responsible) translator.