The movie Arrival doesn’t just make you think about complex things; it makes you think about the way you think about complex things. Serious spoilers about the movie and the nature of time and thought.
She knew the whole time how it would end, and she did it anyway. Did she have to – in a sense that she was metaphysically, mathematically bound to do it that way? Or did she let events fold out the way they did because she valued the end result?
Ever have a well-meaning relation ask you “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” In this case, my Aunt A is replaced by fifteen foot squids from outer space.
Yeah, yeah, the movie, based upon the 1998 novella “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang, is ostensibly about First Contact, and how we, as a species, may not be able to rely upon each other after all when the shit really gets real.
But really this is a movie about accepting loss.
Between the giant seven-armed squids and their mathematically complex coffee stains, and all the death and divorce and grief and acceptance comes time travel at least by information.
It seems the protagonist, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) flashes forward with visions of the future. Not only does this provide a deus-ex-machina mechanism for our heroes to convince world leaders to do the right thing at the last possible moment, but she knew, as she’s falling in love with the other character (mathematician Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner), that it ends badly.
She knew before they kissed.
She did it anyway.
The aliens knew all along that humans would behave badly, but engaged us in good faith anyway because they know that our future gets better, to the benefit of both species. Time is not linear for our giant space squids. They see their whole reality as a preview trailer cut randomly with a flashback episode interspersed with the occasional live broadcast. They see our dependence on a rational sequence of events as impairment.
As Banks decodes their language, though, the process changes her brain structure to the point where she flashes forward, at least in her mind, to future events. That’s the big science fiction conceit of the film: that language itself can determine the way we think.
If you knew that your brainy, convoluted philosophy essay of an SF film, with a female linguist as your main character, deliberate non linear storytelling, one single explosion and no boobs would be a hit anyway, you would make it? What if you knew it would flop? Would you make it anyway?
The language-brain conceit is called Linguistic Relativity, and really no one believes that it could change your brain to the point where you have super powers. And the reveal about the true sequence of events relies a little too heavily on the basic agelessness of Amy Adams. Those are really the only two gripes I would have about the film.
IMDB reports Ted Chiang, who wrote the novella the film is based upon, approved the film, saying, “I think it’s that rarest of the rare in that it’s both a good movie and a good adaptation… And when you consider the track record of adaptations of written science fiction, that’s almost literally a miracle.”
For every episode of willful ignorance that comes across your screen, remember that Arrival got made, made well, and did exactly what it was supposed to do. The more movies (and other media) we absorb like this, the more we might be able to face the uncertain future with courage.
Worth reading for depth
IMDB on Ted Chiang