Arrival (2016)

I’m so glad a friend who wanted to see it it invited me along or I would surely have overlooked this gem.

In Arrival, lonely linguistics professor Louise gets called in by the top army brass alongside your more typical math/physics guy to try to figure out how to communicate with the aliens in one of twelve lens-shaped black ships hovering over different parts of the world (the answer: coffee rings!), but the clock is ticking because the win/lose approach favored by the Chinese (and by some rogue American soldiers, for that matter) could result in catastrophic alien retaliation.

Arrival is not very actiony; there’s a lot of quiet drama in with the sci-fi. There are a couple of nice themes, but nothing overbearing. The film never even gets near the “hold hands and sing kum ba yah” cliche, which I perhaps was dreading. The black lenses recall Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths, but that’s the only similarity Arrival has with 2001:A Space Odyssey. Nor did it have the nonsensical transcendent mystery of Close Encounters. Nor was it anything like Independence Day (1995). The movies it’s being compared to are all movies I haven’t yet seen (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian).

The movie has been described as “sophisticated”, “intellectual”, “thoughtful”, “pensive”, and “cerebral”. That’s great. Quibble how you will about inaccuracies in the depiction of linguistics, the fact that Hollywood deigns to depict a linguist at all is nice.

I further approve of this movie because it didn’t announce that it has a heroine (rather than a hero). Arrival contains absolutely no obtrusive feminist rhetoric, spunky, defensive or otherwise. There’s just a likable woman smack at the center of the story. The heroine is played by Amy Adams, seen ten years ago in Disney’s Enchanted. The male scientist (played by Jeremy Renner, Marvel’s Hawkeye) for all his supposed skills, is just along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, difficult to describe without giving the game away, somewhat like Predestination (2014). I’m also reminded of The Three-Body Problem, which also dramatizes the effect of aliens on humanity.

Since the not-fictional Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is part of the backdrop of the movie, I would like to point out that learning a new language—learning anything—does change your brain, but not like science fiction (or even the real Sapir and Whorf) would have you believe.

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Also see below for a brief comparison of the movie and the short story it was based on.

My Beat Sheet for Arrival

Opening Image
Mother and newborn.

One day when Doctor Louise Banks goes to teach her linguistics students, almost no one is in the lecture hall because alien ships have appeared. Class is cancelled.

Theme Stated
The past contains the seeds of the future, i.e., we reap what we sow? Further, war is bad?

Catalyst / Debate
Some government guys including Colonel Weber show up and ask for her help. She translated a video clip from Farsi and now they want her to translate an audio recording of the aliens. She says she can’t give a translation unless she interacts with the aliens on site. They refuse to take her there and start to leave to contact their second choice, but she says, “Ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation.” The army guys helicopter to her house that night to take her to the site after all. The other guy said the word meant “disagreement” whereas her more specific, culturally contextual answer was “desire for more cows”. The translation she gave seems to reflect her attitude to war as unnecessary, wasteful, or driven by greed.

Break Into Two
Louise meets Ian (the physicist) and they’re taken into the alien ship, where Louise finally sees two heptapods (seven-footed thingies). Communicating by sounds doesn’t seem to work, so on the next trip in, Louise brings along a whiteboard. After she writes “human” on it, one of the heptapods uses a seven-fingered tentacle to shoot ink in a circle. Progress.

B Story
On the next trip into the ship, Louise tries to teach them her name. In a totally predictable move, she removes her bulky hazmat suit to commune with the strange beings closer to the glass wall that separates them. Ian follows suit—by stripping off his, uh, suit. Louise and Ian name the two heptapods Abbott and Costello. The heptapods emit more ink rings, probably their names. More progress.

The Promise of the Premise
Louise, having convinced the Colonel to let her do things her way, collects images of ink rings and gradually builds up a way of talking to the heptapods. She keeps having weird dream hallucinations, though, about an estranged husband and a daughter who died from disease.

An intercepted message indicates that the Chinese have been using Mahjong as a communication tool, which has probably given an adversarial tone to their conversation. Soon after, China cuts off communications with the investigation teams in other countries and gives the aliens an ultimatum: hand over the promised weapon and leave Earth or be destroyed. The American team cuts off its own international ties and prepares for the worst. Time is running out. Louise and Ian ask the important question (“What is your purpose on Earth?”), and the answer seems to be “offer weapon”. An ambiguous phrase at best.

Bad Guys Close In
Unaware that discontented Americans have planted a bomb on the ship, Louise and Ian go back up to talk to the heptapods about the “weapon”. They receive a complex, mystifying message but are then blasted out of the ship by the bomb.

All is Lost
Nobody wants to look into that last message (which turns out to be only a twelfth of a full message they need to assemble with the help of the other nations’ teams) because the American team is evacuating, on the assumption that the aliens will lash out after the explosion, or possibly just leave. The ship remains; it merely rises out of reach of the army’s crane.

Dark Night of the Soul
Louise experiences memories of her daughter Hannah. She realizes she’s seeing the future. The daughter, Hannah, is hers and Ian’s. Ian left when she told him she knew Hannah was going to die young. Ian apparently thinks Louise should not have brought Hannah into the world at all.

Break Into Three
Louise goes back to the ship by herself. Only one of the heptapods greets her; the other is dead or dying. The remaining one says that the heptapods come in friendship to help humans, and hope to be helped in return, three thousand years into the future. It says Louise has a weapon and should use it. The gift/tool/weapon is the heptapod language, because (in accordance with the much maligned Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and some rather amazing research findings on brain plasticity), learning it confers the ability to see the future. Louise learned it, thus she can see the future, because the heptapods’ perception of time, as well as their language, is circular rather than linear. Coffee rings ftw.

During the evacuation, the 12 ships are turning horizontal ominously, the Chinese are lining up to attack theirs, and Louise is remembering something that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a world peace celebration or some such thing, and she’s talking to General Shang, who is thanking her for phoning her on his private line to change his mind about attacking. He shows her the number and repeats what she said to him (his wife’s last words were something to the effect that war makes widows, not winners), though actually she’s hearing both pieces of information for the first time. She steals a satellite phone and Ian protects her while she uses the information from her vision to stop the Chinese attack. Subsequently, the ships right themselves and dissolve into nothing. (If you were hoping the aliens would show off their knowledge of interstellar travel, this movie is not for you.) Ian says his wonder at meeting aliens pales in comparison to his wonder at meeting Louise. Don’t have to speak Heptapod to see that coming.

Final Image
A happy family: Louise, Ian, and Hannah, whose palindromic name is equally beautiful no matter which side of it you read from, the beginning or the end.

Related Articles and Posts

Comparison of Arrival and
“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

The short story on which the movie was based was interesting and well written. It differs in a few respects:

  • It lacks the ambiguity of the movie, in which we believe the protagonist’s daughter died before the arrival of the heptapods.
  • It has a LOT more physics.
  • It also has more linguistics.
  • It lacks the events of the finale.
  • Both the male and female lead find other partners.
  • The heptapods are called Raspberry and Flapper.
  • The writing is not described in a way that evokes coffee rings.
  • The heptapods both write and speak.

I like the metaphor of reading a child a storybook in spite of—and because of—the fact that the child already knows the whole story. If we knew the future, would we change it or just enact it? If we do not change it, do we have choice? If we do change it, was it really the future? More pragmatically, if we knew the future, wouldn’t we bet on stuff and make lots of money?

The point in the story where the present and the future fuse unambiguously is the moment, also present in the movie, when the protagonist remembers the term “non-zero-sum game”.

The plot of the short story is not as dramatic, but the point of the story is not plot but the melding of linguistics, physics, and philosophy (free will vs. determinism), which is in fact very clever and worth appreciating. In the end, the stance of the story seems to be that time can be seen in sequential or simultaneous fashion, like the drawings that are a young woman or an old one, a duck or a rabbit, depending on how you look at them.