Two years ago, I wrote about the sci-fi movie “Her” and my disappointment that the most intriguing aspect of the movie—the idea that the artificial intelligences we are on the cusp of creating will in turn create their own “world” that we will never be part of—was given short shrift. Instead, the focus of the movie was on how an alienated man learns to reconnect to others. A nice movie, well-done, but I’ve seen plenty of “redemption” movies. I wanted to know more about that other world!
I feel the same way about “Arrival.” As with “Her,” I was delighted to see a sci-fi movie that did not turn out to be either a horror film or a film about the apocalypse.* And I did enjoy the main theme, which is that giving in to our fears without trying to learn more about the thing we fear is what destroys us. Reacting without thinking leads to bad choices. George Costanza of “Seinfeld” found in one episode that if he did the opposite of his first impulse, he’d usually do the right thing; this may be true for a lot of us.
At the same time, the movie emphasizes that if you can let go of your fears and trust your intuition instead, you will make the right choice. The key thing is not that you think carefully about what you’re doing before you do it, although a lot of the people in the movie do argue for that; the key thing is to let go of your first knee-jerk reactions.
But there’s a lot more to this movie. At moments it touches on the deeper theme, which is about how our language shapes our brains and determines what we are capable of realizing or seeing or even perhaps doing. This is the theme I would have liked to have seen brought out more; I would have been happy if the climax of the movie had focused purely on it, in fact. But this is a “big” Hollywood movie and so the climax was about averting global war, like so many movies are these days. I get that we as a culture fear war more than anything, especially at the moment, so our movies have to explore that fear, but the other idea is much more earth-shaking to me .
I recently saw a fascinating TED talk on how native speakers of languages that only have a present tense, like German or Chinese, are better at things like eating well or saving money. Those of us who grew up speaking “futured” languages, languages that have a future tense like English, find it much easier to put off doing the things we know we should be doing, like cutting down on sweets or putting part of our money in a retirement fund, because we can think “I will do that [later].” In a language that has no future tense, you either are doing something or you are not, so when you think of eating better, you think of it as something you are doing right now, today. There’s no “I’ll start my diet Monday.”
“Arrival,” through the character of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a top linguist, explains a little bit about how our language controls our thinking. Louise speaks many languages, so her brain has become much more adaptable to seeing the world in a different way. (The emperor Charlemagne said that “to have a second language is to have a second soul.”)
Most of the action, apart from the scenes increasing the tension about the possibility of war, shows us Louise learning the aliens’ language. Eventually she realizes that this a language in which there is no time at all: the future is now. Because of their language, the aliens see the future as well as the present. They are prescient. As she learns their language, Louise’s brain is altered even more and she too becomes prescient, which allows her to avert the pending catastrophe—and eventually, as a quick montage at the end hints, help the entire human race to evolve.
This ability is a two-edged sword, as the montage also shows. If you knew that the choice you made today would make you happy for a many years but then cause you deep sorrow, would you still choose it?
In our Christian-influenced society, we tend to equate sorrow and bad things with evil or with punishment. Buddhism has another take, that every life will include 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. You “deserve” neither. You just get your fair share of both, as we all do, and that is what makes a rich life. The movie ends with Louise saying “yes” to all of it. To me, that was the real climax of the movie.
* “Apocalypse,” by the way, means “uncovering” or “revealing of secrets” in the original Greek, not the end times as we use it today.