Interpreting the Language of Arrival

June 28, 2020 — Leave a comment

When Arrival came out in 2016, audiences were lead to believe essentially one thing about it – that its about alien first contact, somewhere between 1997’s Independence Day and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But Arrival turned out to be so much more than this. A fact revealed in the film’s beginning as it depicts with great emotion Dr. Louis Banks’ memory of her daughter’s birth… life… and tragic young death. Causing us to wonder what relationship might there be between Louise’ memory and the film’s advertised arrival.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know the answer, and yet it appears director Denise Villeneuve has left something even more significant for us to find in repeat viewings, something which explains, for instance, why he wanted the film’s spaceship to stand oddly balanced in this way, contrary to the way spaceships have typically been depicted in film.

It’s in this ship that, of course, the heart of Arrival takes place, as Louise comes to perform her central role as a linguist, deciphering the language of the Heptapods in order to ask and then answer for the world why they are here. And it’s here in the ship that she discovers the visual key to decoding their language. Whereas we, humans, communicate in a line, one word at a time, moving from beginning to end, the Heptapod’s communicate in a circle, expressing their thoughts all at once, in a form with neither beginning nor end.

Which means the Heptapods also differ from humans in their relationship to time. Our human written line matches the way we see time. We experience each moment, one after another, the past known, the present becoming known and the future not yet being known, a one-way experience known as the arrow of time. But the complete wholeness of the Heptapod’s circle indicates that for them past, present and future are all equally known and or remembered.

And this is what Louise comes to experience as she learns their language. At first, Louise struggles with the memories of her daughter’s life and death…

but as Louise comes to more fully understand this language, the film reveals that the past (the things we’re shown at the beginning of the film) is, in fact, the future, as Louise realizes she now remembers her future like her part. By coming to think as the Heptapods, Louise has transcended the arrow of time, remembering the whole of her life even as she continues to live out the present. The film’s plot is circular, coming full circle in the end, where Louise chooses to embrace all the joys and sorrows of the life she now knows she will live.

But Louise’s ability to mentally travel to the future by learning a new language isn’t meant to be taken literally. The title’s appearance here at the end, for the first time on screen, invites us to watch the film again. Though the film connects the title Arrival to the Arrival of the Heptapod’s, in the end, we find it’s only appearing in this place traditionally reserved for the words “The end.” Thus, ending the film with this punch of a more profound meaning.

Arrival is more than about the coming of the Heptapods its about OUR Arrival in seeing the film through to its conclusion, the complete whole, by which, in hindsight, we see the film’s true meaning.

For instance, watching Arrival the first time, we couldn’t see any meaning in THIS shot of Louise walking in a circle after the death of her daughter and it being juxtaposed with this shot of her walking a straight line in the very next scene. But watching the film a second time, we recognize the theme later developed in the film as it foreshadows Louise’s transition from linear to circular thinking, a meaning which we can now see as we’ve undergone Louise’s same transition, remembering the end from the very beginning. In watching the film a second time, we’ve come to see Arrival as Louise has learned to see her life, experiencing the true significance of each moment in light of our knowledge and connection to the whole.

The Heptapod’s language and logogram represents this whole, the key to meaning and interpretation which philosophers refer to as the Hermeneutic circle. The whole defines the meaning of its parts even as the parts define the meaning of the whole. For instance, If I say the word “hand”, its natural, given past experience, to assume I’m referring to the most common meaning of that word in our language. But “hand”, depending on the words which follow it, may, in the end, reveal that I meant something else, like help or applause. That’s because there’s no automatic relationship between a sound or written symbol and the meaning it’s intended to convey. The same symbol, like hand, may have any number of meanings which only the connections of a complete context reveal. We also see this at work in film. In my last video on Momento I discussed the the Kuleshov Effect, how we instinctively understand the meaning of an image by the image which comes after, even as we understand the last image by the one that came before. Whole and part of a text work simultaneously together to form a texts true meaning. Which means to truly understand the meaning of any part we have to first come to know the whole.

One of the ways Arrival shows our need for the whole is found in international crisis created by the Heptapod’s Arrival. Though the film focus’ on Louise’s experience in one ship, we’re told the Heptapod’s have actually landed in a total of 12 ships, leading the 12 nations in which the Heptapods have landed to come together to share and learn from one another which the film represents through the unity of these 12 video feeds.

But then world learns just enough of the Heptapods language to ask them their purpose.
The answer is translated as as “offer weapon” which world sees as see a threat. The nations disconnect from each other out of fear that one of them will use the Heptapod’s weapon to conquer the rest.

Agent Halpern: we have to consider the idea that our visitors are prodding us to fight each other until only one faction remains.

Louise: There’s no evidence of that

Agent Halpern: Sure there is. Just open a history book.

In terms of the hermeneutic circle, the world has interpreted the Heptapod’s purpose through the limited lens of past human experience. But Louise believes more needs to be known about the Heptapod’s and their language to know exactly what they mean. She returns to the ship and asks to receive what they’re offering. And in this highly symbolic moment, she’e invited to write along with them their language on the screen, experiencing even more flashes of future memory, before finally being shown this cloud of Heptapod signs.

It’s important to note here just how often clouds appear in Arrival. And it’s here in this cloud of signs, that we learn why.

The cloud’s empty or incomplete space represents a numerical ratio which reveals to Louise and Ian that the Heptapods have portioned out the whole of their language to each of the 12 ships, Requiring the nations to bring their respective parts together, to fill in the clouds empty space of potential meanings in order to know precisely what the Heptapods are saying.

And yet the meaning of these 12 parts isn’t only about unifying the nations. The 12 parts symbolize the parts of a clock, in other words the parts and whole of time. Just as the nations must come together in order to piece together the Heptapod’s language, so Louise must piece together the whole of her life’s unfolding timeline, to accurately interpret its meaning. Time in Arrival is a metaphorical language. And it’s this metaphor which explains how Louise can come to know the future by learning the Heptapod’s language.

Louise: Yeah, Sapir-Worf… It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think.

According to the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, the language we speak is none other than the hermeneutic whole by which we interpret everything.

Ian: Yeah, it effects how you see everything.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s put it this way: “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The Language we speak is in essence the whole of what we know, the boundaries by which we interpret the world around us. But if we think about it, the limits of our present language are really the limits of our memory, our present experience of time as we know our language and its meaning only by the accumulation of experiences which hold together in our minds. All that we know is from this moment past. Thus to grow in our experience of time, adding new moments to our memory, is to be in a real and figurative sense learning a new language, a new way of seeing and interpreting the world.

Learning a new language, even an alien language, could never literally cause Louise to remember a future she hasn’t yet lived. But she can metaphorically know the future in the same way we sometimes know the future or what will happen next, and that’s in remembering or re-experiencing something we’ve already lived. We do this when we transport ourselves through memory to a past moment or watch a film again. In watching Arrival a second time, we remember the film’s future end in the same way Louise comes to remember her future.

It’s, thus, no accident that the Heptapod’s circular language echoes Arrival’s circular “beginning-echoed-in-the-end” plot. Just as it’s no accident the screen upon which the Heptapods write their circular language looks like the theater screen upon which Arrival was first shown. The language of the Heptapod’s is the language of Arrival itself. Just as the Heptapod’s give their language as the means to interpret their language and purpose so Denise Villeneuve, the director of the film, has given us his film to interpret both his film and his purpose. He metaphorically uses the time-consuming and often confusing process of learning a new language for the temporal confusion we experience in arriving at the true meaning of Arrival, which is significantly same confusing process whereby which we are moving towards the meaning of life.

And it’s this meaning which Arrival points us to in the ship. Here, in introducing us to the ship, Denise Villanuve draws a connection to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more specifically the mysterious black monolith which appears suddenly and without explanation throughout that film. In these allusions Villanueva identifies the ship with the monolith. In 2001, the monolith appears before great leaps in human evolution: the dawning of man, man’s movement into space and finally to Dave just before his death and rebirth. Kubrick would go on to explain in interviews that the monolith in 2001 is the technology of an advanced alien race, guiding humanity through its evolution. And in that, he said, it also symbolized his view of God. God, for Kubrick, wasn’t so much the anthropomorphic personal deity of western religion but an abstract mystery, a doorway, concealing and yet also revealing the answers to life.

Inside the Heptapod’s ship, we’re shown Louise symbolically arriving at her life’s end. The light at the end of the tunnel echoes an image commonly associated with crossing over into death. Just as the life Louise sees through the circle on the screen mirrors the lifelong memories which are often said to flash before the eyes of the one dying. And in the same way, Louise’s fear and trembling before the arrival of the alien Heptapod’s symbolizes the final life-ending encounter with God, whom the Bible calls the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the source and definition of life, the complete whole by which the true meaning of life is revealed.

Matthew Scott Miller

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