Confession time! I studied literature in college, so Arrival may have more appeal to me than the standard viewer base. I am more than happy watching one of the world’s greatest linguists interact with foreign entities through the medium of language. For hours really. That could have been a larger portion of the movie and I don’t think I would have gotten bored. So I may be a bit biased in saying this but… I thoroughly enjoyed Arrival and found it to be quite good. I certainly understand how Arrival can be considered slow, I just find it to be more deliberate than slow.
This is very much an intellectual movie that makes us question our current worldview and challenges us to reach new, bold conclusions. Confession again! I also majored in philosophy while in college. So, again, potential bias guiding me here. Broadly speaking, this movie is about philosophy. Yes, this movie is heavily influenced by language, linguistics, and interspecies interaction using the tool of language. The entire conclusion of the movie is reliant upon the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that language dictates how we experience the world instead of the reverse being true. I had no idea this was even a thing until a few days ago when I stumbled upon an article talking about Arrival. Don’t give me that much credit. A quick search on the interwebs was able to tell me all I needed to know about the Sapir-Whorf hyposthesis to help me better understand Arrival. However, back to philosophy. Once a movie starts challenging you to examine your worldview as openly as Arrival, it has entered into the realm of philosophy. Doing philosophy, and asking others to do it with you, is a difficult enough feat. Asking others to philosophize by the millions through the medium of a movie that is based on linguistics and other world species contact is something else entirely. In order to reach your goal of getting other people to think about the way they perceive the world, you have to be deliberate. That is hard enough as it is. Any other busyness just won’t do. And considering I am still thinking about it (and will be for quite some time), it seems that Arrival has achieved this goal.
I often half joke that the only three truly universal aspects of the human condition are laughter, music, and soccer. In the interest of being fair and honest, I should really add language to that list. Arrival needed a way to instantly engage its viewers; the use of language was a clever way to do just that. It is also extremely convenient that there so happens to be an entire linguistics hypothesis that serves as the foundation for the points the movie is trying to make. I think (hope) I fully understand Arrival, but I still have so many questions. For the sake of the movie (and fun), let’s just permit the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to be correct. A supremely compelling case can be made that it is not; however, an equally compelling case can be made that it is. So let’s assume that we understand the world through language and that by learning a different language, we would then see the world differently. In the case of Louise in Arrival, not only did she understand the world differently, but the way she saw time and chronology changed entirely. We understand the world and time in a linear fashion. From start to finish. Beginning to end. Once Louise learned the language of the heptapods, she no longer saw time as linear. Even more so, she no longer experienced time in the chronological order that we believe it to be in. She essentially lived all stages of her life simultaneously. This began occurring intermittently as Louise learned more and more of the language. The most powerful display of her experiences occurs when she steals the satellite phone in order to contact General Chang to stop him from committing an act of aggression against the heptapods. She changed General Chang’s mind by calling him on his personal phone and repeating his wife’s last words to him. She was only able to do this because she had already done it. Kind of. The best example I can think of is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Except, double the complexity. And even so, this analogy is far from hitting the mark. Harry is able to cast his Patronus that he didn’t know he was capable of casting because he had already cast it the first time he was dying by the lake. But even this version of timeline manipulation is limited by chronology. Events transpire in a certain order; Hermione is only able to go back in time and cause events to occur again. Arrival goes deeper. Louise knew/knows/will have known (pick one; they each work in concordance with the film) General Chang’s number because he showed it to her (chronologically) after she called him. Similarly, she only knew what his wife’s last words were because, from Louise’s perspective, General Chang was telling them to her at a chronologically future date as she was saying them to him over the satellite phone. She was not performing events again; she was performing them concurrently. I am perfectly comfortable saying that Louise has been freed from the limiting factor of experiencing time in a chronological order and now experiences past, present, and future simultaneously.
But now, all the questions! Learning the language of the heptapods changes Louise’s perspective of time. But it is simply that, a perspective; not necessarily the truth. Is her new perspective the way that time actually works? Was her old perspective the way time actually works? Or could it be that neither her current nor previous understanding of time is accurate? It certainly can’t be both, correct? It can’t be that time is both chronological and concurrent. That is an irreconcilable paradox. Or perhaps Louise’s new concurrent way of experiencing life is closer to the way time actually works, but not quite there, yet. It seems that the movie wishes to tell us that a concurrent understanding of life is superior seeing as Louise did singlehandedly save the world from what could have possibly been an all-out war with an alien race. I have so many more questions, but I will just add one. From the perspective of our hypothesis, we understand the world through language, leading us to one more question. Does time exist independently of human (or alien) conscious thought, or is it created from the language a civilization makes? If it is created from our languages, then it certainly makes sense why there can be multiple ways to comprehend time. But if it does exist as its own entity regardless of our language and understanding, then it seems that there is only one true way that time functions, regardless of how many understandings of it are created. If you ask me, which you obviously should, if there is only one true way that time works, then avariciously seeking out that answer is a worthwhile pursuit of humanity as a whole.
My name is Chuck, and these are my thoughts. Now I would like to know what you think. Given that last paragpraph, I will spare the questions this post 😊. Leave a comment down below, and we’ll talk. Enjoy the day!
Next week: Get Out