I saw Arrival

November 30, 2016

A screenshot of the movie Arrival (2016)

Loved it. Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite directors and Jóhann Jóhannsson's music is tremendous. It's an earnest approach about experts dealing with extraterrestrial life with a great twist on top. It's entertaining and emotional too.

I read a bunch of reviews that seem to miss the point.

Spoilers below /!\

Near the end of the movie, it becomes clear that the flashbacks that bothered Louise throughout the whole event, regarding her sick daughter Hannah, are actually visions from the future because she doesn't recognize that child yet. The father will be Ian, who she met in the helicopter on their way to the military site. It is shown that Ian would eventually leave her after Hannah falls sick, being told by Louise that she always knew that their daughter would die at a young age.

So the question that people often ask themselves after watching the movie is: "Would you have a child too if you knew that she would die of illness at 12?"

That's pretty unfair to Louise and the wrong question to ask in the context of Arrival.

Through visual communication, the heptapods offered Louise the tool to alter her cognition. That sentence itself sounds like hard sci-fi but that's actually what happens when you learn a language, especially if it's your first and you don't know any better. A language can help shape your world view.

For instance in Japanese, which uses logograms, the word "fireworks" could literally translate to "fire flower". That alternate concept of the pyrotechnic feat does make it sound more precious. It puts less emphasis on the explosive device and more on celebrating peace or the beauty of nature. It's a different perception of the same thing.

Anyway, that was a cute example but Arrival goes all-in on strong linguistic relativity and pushes it to another dimension. With her new gift, Louise's entire life could now be represented as a circle with no beginning and no end. The amount of experience she has makes for the size of the circle. She's now living like a heptapod so the concept of memories belonging to the past is nonsense. Instead, she can put her mind on any moment in her life, totally untethered by what we think is the present. She sees Hannah playing cowboy. She sees Ian becoming a father. Louise has so many irreplaceable moments with her family all over that circle, that to lose those would be the truly regrettable thing. In any case, there's a delusion of choice here. The circle will always look the same regardless of what others think she's thinking.

Louise is NOT a time traveller and she can't manipulate time. She's a time spectator at best. Both parents have already spent those twelve years with Hannah! Ian would just experience them the standard, linear way full of surprises. It is the fact that Louise already has a daughter in the future that allowed her to solve the alien crisis too. It's a causal loop.

A nice movie detail is that the name Hannah can be read both ways, as if it doesn't matter where it ends and it begins.