Arrival (2016)

Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time. But now I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.

This is the first statement in Paramount Pictures "Arrival". If you are looking for the philosophical direction the film is leading us in, you already have your answer.

The statement is made in a dreamy, inner-voice-over which spans cuts to the scene in a style which has become trendy in "groundbreaking" thought-pieces. A slippery relationship between time and memory is the main theme of the film, but "Arrival" takes it one step beyond.

“Arrival” is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Our Lives”. This is a review of the film but we'll briefly refer to the short story the film was based on because it has a deeper explanation of the central idea which wasn't fully explained in the film.

It’s billed as drama, mystery, sci-fi on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, and that is fairly accurate since there is probably not enough science content to just call it sci-fi. Whatever science is in the film is directed towards one overt goal: to present a new idea. There is some discussion of a principle by which a person who learns a new language can develop the ability to see the world in from a special perspective, and that they may obtain new cognitive capacities. Language is taken as a limiting constraint in this story, and the new language is believed to provide new cognitive capabilities, even over the sequential nature of time, but that is something we will want to look at a little more closely than most reviews.


Visitors arrive from another place. That’s about all we know about them, and that they are very advanced. They show up at will hovering over 12 almost random locations with the apparent intention of talking to people of the various nations and social strata of Earth. Their ships aren’t shown arriving, so the title event of the film is taken as a given. They just show up there hovering and silent in cloud-piercing shell-shaped obelisks that hover without any detectable disturbance.

The method of transportation and arrival establishes the alien beings as highly technologically advanced, but excuses the authors from specifying the nature of the advances. Even the entry portals to the ships are cleverly abstracted. The door disappears upward from the bottom, and then to avoid presenting any living quarters or internal walkways the gravity is manipulated in the bottom portal so that the humans can walk upright on the wall. When the alien beings are presented they are on the other side of a large glass wall suspended in what appears to be a milky fluid. It's a very effective method of establishing the aliens as very advanced and inaccessible without getting caught up in technical details.

The aliens, called heptapods for their seven legs, have the same basic form as octopus but with seven advanced tentacles from which they can dispense ink which they form into complex circular symbols. Each circular symbol has minor irregularities which are the content of the message. It is effectively a short sentence with the end of the sentence joined to the beginning. Whatever sci-fi space travel might be in this film is there solely to abstract out and present one single concept: The visitors have brought with them a payload which is carried in their language. The payload is the idea that the sequential nature of time is an illusion.

The Theme

The alien language is used as a portal to a special ability. A concept known as linguistic relativity, also called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, is a theory that the reality we experience is determined by the language we use. So as Louise learns a nonlinear language, one where sentences are circular and can be started at any point in the circle, her perception of time becomes non-linear. The film uses the strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis by showing that Louise actually overcomes the sequential nature of time by learning the new language. She remembers things that have not happened yet.

I don't subscribe to this idea but I'm going to attempt to give it a full explanation. In this theory the future already exists and, if you know how, it is possible to access future occurrences by a process similar to remembering, but about the future. In this view of the world, the future is already there. It exists in the same way the past exists. The fact that we can't acquire knowledge of it just illustrates a limitation of our form of thinking. If we could use some other thought process, then we would be able to have cognitive access to future events as well as past events. Wouldn't that be cool?

The case in favor of this idea was not presented very well in the movie so I was tempted to investigate the book version of the story where I found a better and more thorough presentation, so I am going to include that in this film review since it's part of the original story and was probably left out of the film simply for time considerations.

Ted Chiang is the author of "The Story of Our Lives", but he presents the case through the main character, Louise. She is narrating the process of her discoveries of the alien language. As she becomes adept at writing the language she is supposed to be gaining special insights into the way that the aliens think.

For the future to be knowable in the same way the past is knowable, it must already exist. It must already be there like the later part of a book which you are reading, but which you have not gotten to yet, or of a film that you are in the middle of watching, but that has already been filmed.

Chiang describes the already existing predetermined future as "The Book of Ages" which, as he describes, must be without error. He anticipates some of the logical problems that such a book would entail, such as the conflict between the concepts of free will and predeterminism, but he presents it as a struggle to overcome the previously authored book of ages.

Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn’t accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.

He makes a compelling case as he has Louise describe some heartfelt moments in her life and the choices she made during them.

Louise relates three sequences of events that overlap but that have similar qualities. Ian is interested in her sexually and she sees it coming, Ian's and Louise's future daughter accidentally pulls a salad bowl from a shelf which falls on her head, and while Ian and her shop for clams at the local market she pulls a salad bowl off the shelf to purchase it. Chiang shows Louise recognizing the similarity between these three sequences as we see in the following dense passage:

I reached out and took the bowl from the shelf. The motion didn’t feel like something I was forced to do. Instead it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in following. “I could use a salad bowl like this.” Ian looked at the bowl and nodded approvingly. “See, wasn’t it a good thing that I had to stop at the market?” “Yes it was.” We got in line to pay for our purchases.

The three occurrences don't feel predetermined, Louise tells us. They would only feel predetermined if we were predetermined to feel predetermined. But the author of the "book of ages" has written that we feel urgent. She feels urgency in her inevitable coupling with Ian, and with pulling the salad bowl off the shelf at the market. So why should she also not feel urgency when reaching out to protect her child's head?

The Shell Game

This is where the theory starts to fall down like the salad bowl upon the child's head. Louise is not mating with Ian by any choice of her own, but because it is predetermined by the "book of ages" and she saw it in the future before it even happened. She had no choice in the matter. Even the urgency she may have felt was preprogrammed into her life as an automaton. We might as well call her Louise-bot.

A drama/mystery film invests you in the struggles and discoveries of the story's protagonist. This means we are concerned with the protagonists choices and the outcome of their choices. We are constantly asking if they made the right choice, like when Louise doffs her spacesuit in the alien vessel, and how that choice will affect their future.

The story of the film is all about the sequential processes of discovery that the characters go through over a period of time, not knowing what the results will be until the results are revealed in the future. The film requires that you watch from the beginning, otherwise it is not much of a mystery or drama.

When we place a spoiler alert on films it is to indicate that if you know the outcome, especially that twist with General Shang, that the story will be "spoiled". The value of the story is the process of it being told.

The character Louise even stands her ground in the film when other characters ask her to change the order of the process she is using. They ask her to carry out her process out of order, in the same way that learning the result of a future action would be out of order, and she refuses. The character who overcomes the limitation of a sequential order of time is herself intensely protective of her sequential order of teaching the English language to the aliens.

She is also adamant that discoveries made before the aliens are properly taught are not real discoveries. She is saying this about aliens who, according the the main plot feature, already know the future.

Purpose requires understanding of intent. Which means we have to find out if they make conscious choices of if their motivation is so instinctive they don't understand a "why" question, and biggest of all, we need to have enough of a vocabulary with them so we understand their answer.Louise

Of course it is meaningless to talk about the "intent" or "motivation" of entities which have no choice in their behavior, but it is also meaningless for Louise to talk about her own "need" and "understanding" if she acheives the predeterminism she and the film strive for.

And it is not just the main character of the story who is protective of the sequential process. It is also the author of the screenplay:

This movie was about process — the process of cracking a new language and teaching our own.Eric Heisserer

The writer makes it clear that certain parts of the process must come in the right order, even though the entire conclusion of his film is that the sequential order of time is an illusion.

I returned with the core question humanity wanted answered by the heptapods, written on a page. I dissected the question one word at a time in a defense of the need for basics. I realized how ridiculous I sounded: Here I was, defending a series of little scenes of a woman teaching alien life words like “eat” and “walk” and “home.” But this movie is about process, and I was passionate about protecting Louise’s process.Eric Heisserer

This story of a language has been directed by a purpose, to show that by thinking differently we can acquire new abilities which are not possible to us as we think now.

Louise acquires a special ability. By thinking in a new language she overcomes the limitations placed on her by human language. The inability to remember the future is supposed to be a constraint imposed on our minds by the way we speak.

Yet, the same author that reveals this to us and wants to liberate us from the constraints of time that our language has imposed on us is intensely concerned with his character's sequential process of development within the sequential telling of the story:

In all my draft work on the adaptation, I spent the most time on the intellectual and political challenges of the story. But if I ever encroached on the intimate, emotional through-line of Louise’s journey, the story fell apart. Other scenes could be sacrificed, reworked, moved, or cut to the bone. But director Denis Villeneuve and I found a bare minimum of steps to Louise’s personal journey, and that became our Alamo; our hill we would die defending. Eric Heisserer

In fact the main pay-off of the mystery, that Louise tells General Shang his wife's dying words, doesn't even work if anyone else knew it in advance, that is to say if they knew it out of the order in which the author revealed it. If Shang could sometimes see things out of sequence he would have been entirely unimpressed. It is only surprising because it never actually happens anywhere all of recorded history.

It is a mystical mechanism that only the author knows, by which he has granted a peek at the "book of ages" to his protagonist while denying it to the rest of reality.

But he still wants us to be invested in the twists and turns of the plot and await the outcome as he tells it so his story keeps us in some level of suspense and shocks us at the right time.

Eric Heisserer shows great interest in technical processes, but that entire field of thinking is built on the sequence of cause and effect. He portrays that process admirably in the film. It is a process that depends on an orderly sequence of action, observation, and validation.

That sequence would be meaningless if the premise of his film were true. Thoughts would float in and out of Louise's mind and she would have no way of knowing if it was a memory of the past or of some time yet to come. She would not even know when she was. That is to say she would not know where in time she was. Is it now and hour after she put the clothes in the drier or a day after, or an hour before?

It is interesting that authors often seem to have this view of an already authored future, but they don't usually have it of an already authored book they are writing. If the future already exists then the book they are writing is already written. In such a case they would have no choice in the matter and no claim of authorship over the finished product. But that is not how they view the supposedly groundbreaking book or screenplay they are writing, only all the rest of reality, including the lives of others.

Would an author pretend someone could know the future words other authors would write? That seems like something too outrageous even for authors of time travel and I don't think I've ever seen an example of it. But if ordinary people's actions can be written in the supposed "book of ages", why not the works of authors?

The author of the story negates the choices of all future authors. It's like a partial solipsism where he imagines he is reading a book which they cannot read. He can read the future and then asks moot questions like "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" Of course you wouldn't. You would be preprogrammed not to even want to.

The result of such a way of thinking is illustrated by a line from the film. Louise writes to her future daughter about the girl's father's departure, "I just told him something he wasn't ready to hear, It had to do with a really rare disease, and it's unstoppable. Kind of like you with your poetry and art." The daughter's life, and her poetry and art and a salad bowl falling on her head are all unstoppable, just like a disease. Her daughter has no choices either. It has all been preprogrammed and authored by another.

It's interresting that another popular drama, HBO's "Westworld", revolves entirely around the injustice of the very same time of predetermined, other-authored automaton life that "Arrival" authors happily bestow upon their protagonist and everyone she loves. The unjust nightmare Westworld's protagonists are struggling against is the blissful payoff of "Arrival".

The Ideas

Some might say that this is too much analysis, that the film is entertainment. This is where the Phi-Fi project disagrees. Whereas "Arrival" makes the case that the language we learn determines our reality, Phi-Fi is built on the contention that it is the meaning of the words we say and communicate, and that we hold to be true in our minds, that affect our perception of reality.

The film makes the popular case that ideas are not as important as societal structures, such as language, and it presents that case in a sequence of ideas. The film has been translated into a variety of languages. Are it's basic ideas different in each language? Or are the ideas contained in the words and sentences that the author actually wrote, instead of just the language he wrote them in?

It is important for us to consider and validate the ideas the author presents.

It seems much easier and more common in popular film to present the guiding agent of human action as DNA, such as all the zombie films, or social groups, or language, than ideas. This is probably because it is easier to use an idea about DNA or language than the idea of an idea. The idea of ideas adds a second level of abstraction. It is an abstraction of an abstraction, but no consequential.

In the same way the author warns of the limitation that can be imposed on us by the language we speak in, Phi-Fi warns of the limitations that can be imposed on us by the ideas we choose to accept.