‘Arrival’: Just Say Yes


Spoiler alert: I will make no attempt to avoid revealing plot points as I discuss the celebrated recent science-fiction movie Arrival. First, I figure if you’re destined to see it you’ve probably already seen it. And second, it’s actually too deep to spoil, and the whole theme of the story suggests that it couldn’t be spoiled anyway.

Joe Fruehwald organized a group outing to see Arrival in Edinburgh, and the linguists who attended were all agreed on one thing: Seeing a movie give any kind of depiction of someone tackling the hard work of analyzing an unknown language was a pleasing novelty, even if the portrayal is not entirely realistic (the film confuses linguists with translators, a very common mistake).

It was inevitable that the screenplay would trade on a popular exaggeration of the so-called “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” beloved of every sci-fi author who writes about alien languages (in truth it’s not really a hypothesis at all). Ted Chiang, who wrote the excellent novella that Arrival is based on, is no exception. His story relies on a particularly radical version of the belief that learning a new language will “rewire your brain.”

In a way, learning a new language does rewire your brain, obviously, since many new neuronal connections are forged and new long-term memories laid down. Nonetheless, if you think that learning a language here in the real world can radically change your view of the world, you’re headed for a disappointment.

But I decided to give Chiang and the filmmakers a free pass on their enthusiastically hyperbolic conception of the influence of language on thought, and concentrate on absorbing the rest of what the film had to offer. It took a while to shake off the perception of Arrival as a far-fetched movie about linguistic fieldwork with space aliens. But eventually I began to see that it’s actually a deep, interesting, and touching meditation on time, consciousness, free will, and determinism.

The central character is a young linguistics instructor, Professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams). In the wordless opening sequence we see her interacting with a little girl, evidently her daughter, at several different ages, and then going through the agony of watching her — now college-age and completely bald from chemotherapy — dying in a hospital bed. (I was a bit shocked: Weren’t we supposed to be seeing spaceships, and analysis of alien syntax? That was my mistake.)

That opening sequence is ultimately revealed to be neither contemporaneous nor a flashback. It stands in relation to flashbacks as the future tense does to the past. Chiang’s novella has two interleaved expository streams, one (very unusually) in the second person singular referencing future time, and the other in the first person singular referencing past time. They seem unrelated at first, but eventually connect.

Through learning Heptapod B, the seven-legged aliens’ extraordinarily complex semasiographic written language, Louise acquires the ability to see events independently of their linear locations in the time dimension. She glimpses salient events in her future in the same way that we remember salient events in the past.

It is only after becoming competent in Heptapod B that Louise falls in love, and has to decide whether to have a child with her new husband despite possessing the strange new ability to “remember” future events, including her yet-to-be-conceived daughter’s tragic death.

She scarcely hesitates. Her answer is positive. But she decides not to tell her husband about what she can foresee. When he learns the truth, he is furious, and leaves her.

Knowing from the start that she will raise her daughter through the teenage years and then, inevitably, endure her tragic death, she goes through with it anyway.

Would you?

That, as I see it, is the question the story puts before us. Are you comfortable enough with your life that you could embrace its events and experiences even if you knew in advance, at least broadly and vaguely, how everything would end? Would you raise a child, or embark on loving someone, if you knew it would culminate in tragedy and almost break your heart? (Each mensiversary — the day of each month that reminds me of first meeting Tricia — I confront that question myself. And now I think I know what my answer would be.)

Living your life on those terms would be rather like enjoying a journey through familiar terrain, occasioning neither regret nor dread. Louise says yes to the journey. The experience of watching her daughter grow into a young woman is one that she wants neither to alter nor to reject. Foreknowledge only makes the events of her life more vivid, just as remembering the past does for all of us. Instead of trapping her in an inexorably unfolding preordained sequence of events, it sets her free.

Return to Top