‘Arrival’ returns to theaters: Too esoteric for an Oscar?

Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival” focuses on a novel concept involving the juncture of time and language.

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Promo shot for Paramount Pictures' "Arrival."

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2017 – “Arrival”—a Paramount Pictures film directed by Denis Villeneuve—has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” and “Best Director.” But we’ll have to wait until this evening’s Academy Awards telecast (February 26) to see if the film scores an Oscar statuette in one or more of these categories.

Promo poster for Paramount Pictures’ “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

With its story line largely adapted from the writings of sci-fi writer Ted Chiang—the film itself concerns itself greatly with the concept of time and how it weaves through and affects the lives of everyone, often in unforeseen ways. Has been nominated for several Oscars, including “Best Picture” and “Best Director,” but we’ll have to wait until the Academy Awards telecast on February 26 to see if the film will win, place or show in any category.

But while what’s unforeseen about time isn’t exactly tangible, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We just don’t seem to have the right tools to track down what we think might be there even though we can’t grasp it. That’s the cosmic dilemma “Arrival” attempts to tackle head on.

Released at the Venice Film Festival last fall and in the U.S. near the end of 2016, “Arrival,” which stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, has attracted decent crowds at the cinema while garnering those Oscar nominations. The film has already received a pair of Golden Globe nominations, one for Best Actress (Adams) and the other for Best Original Score. Given all the hubbub surrounding this film, it has, not surprisingly, returned to select theaters for a second run, perhaps hoping to generate more Oscar buzz.


At the center of “Arrival” is linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams). She’s asked by the U.S. military to help them understand what’s up with one of twelve aliens who had mysteriously appeared on Earth 24 hours previously.

Louise is whisked away to Montana—where the alien vessel apparently had appeared — by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker). It’s important to note how little information, visual or otherwise, is provided before Louise actually shows up to the presumed landing site, accompanied by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

When she arrives, confusion reigns at the site, as the cigar-shaped alien ships involved seem capable of materializing and de-materializing at will. It’s the first moment that Louise is able to perceive, however vaguely, the massive change that’s about to take place in her life and in the existence of humanity.

Prior to this moment, we view a brief prologue that gives us a glimpse into the life of Louise and her daughter, Hannah. Here we observe her as her daughter evolves from birth to her premature death from disease. This personal tragedy becomes one of this movie’s primary themes.

“Arrival” is distinguished by its multiplicity of oddly juxtaposed time jumps like this one. As its initially elusive pattern coalesces, it becomes ever more clear that the inner motion of this film revolves around a radical redefinition of the concept of time, which is approached subtly in the way director Denis Villeneuve builds each scene or cuts from one scene to another.

What seem to be key moments in the film are abruptly terminated the moment they cease being relevant, and transitions are jarring in their immediacy. A sense of temporal economy exists along, ironically, with temporal fluidity as Louise initially encounters the military and their strange visitors, each of which, to her, are as alien as the other.

This becomes increasingly important in each of her encounters with the heptapods, the name that’s given to the aliens based on their physical appearance. She’s told not everyone reacts well to interacting with these aliens, and this admonition sets the tone for her own interactions with them. That advice is immediately clarified when, upon arriving at the Montana site, she sees a man man being carted off in a medevac and learns he was her immediate predecessor on the project.

We learn that to the heptapods, Louise is a vessel, someone who can be used to translate their message and their language to humanity for future use, leading to another key element of this unusually intellectual film.

“Arrival” is focused less on action that it is around notions of time and language, which are tricky to grasp. “ Arrival” approaches language itself through the notion of linguistic relativity. This theory posits that language either determines thought or merely influences thought.

The hypothesis is still actively debated today, and is subject to periodic updates whenever science gets a better handle on cognitive functions. But the entire debate is very much at the center of “Arrival,” given that one concern centers on exactly how to communicate the heptapods, who find themselves only able to communicate with humans through their written rather than spoken. It also leads to irony in that many of the humans, as they interact with the heptapods, feel arrogantly superior. Save for Louise, Ian Donnelly and (perhaps) Colonel Weber, most of the other human characters feel more powerful and superior to the heptapods, an attitude that doesn’t necessarily follow from the language issue.

This becomes a zero-sum game in which the heptapods are perceived either as a threat or only mildly interested in helping humanity. The original potential of this close encounter with another species to be mutually beneficial starts to get lost on most of the forces involved.

When Louise finally makes virtual physical contact with the heptapods on their ship, she suddenly begins to visualize memories of her daughter, the memories that were glimpsed at the beginning of the film. These moments are disorienting for both the viewer and for Louise but for entirely different reasons. For the audience these visual flashes are abrupt and deconstructed. But they are equally jarring for Louise, essentially because they haven’t happened yet. That’s because these memories are of a little girl who, it turns out, hasn’t come into being yet for Louise.

These memories for Louise – memories that actually happen in the future – have no direct correlation with how she would normally perceive time in a linear fashion. This leads her to perceive that the heptapods’ language as it is used to communicate with humans, somehow runs parallel to the way they interact with the concept of time.

The heptapods’ language has no temporal starting point and therefore no end. It exists as a fully formed statement from the moment it is conceived. Like opening to a page in a book, those written words exist forever at that exact moment, and depend on the reader to open up to them. Time is just a moment that happens, and has always happened. “Time” just depends on when those specific moments are accessed.

As one commentator put it, “It is NOT time TRAVEL but time PERCEPTION. [Louise] and the aliens are able to perceive time in a non-linear way. You could remember a future event the way we may remember a past event.”

Making Louise’s memories – past, present, and future – fluid instead of linear, allows her to understanding this alien concept of time more clearly, leading to her understanding of their language. In so doing, she also starts to experience time as a whole rather than a linear timeline.

The love Louise holds for her daughter symbolizes the relationship the heptapods have with humanity. Humans might think of themselves as the superior race in this situation. But much like young children believing themselves to be the center of any universe, this feeling is rooted in a general lack of perspective. The heptapods are trying to teach humanity to widen their perspective by giving them the tools in which they can communicate with the universe.

This is why Ian’s emphasis on his notion of a zero sum game is conceptually important to the film. The heptapods are acting more or less like humanity’s parents in a larger universe. Making this relationship functional will benefit the heptapods because, in a thousand years or so, humanity will help them in return. Parenting, after all, is never about winning or losing. Instead, it a mutually beneficial endeavor, at least in theory. It flows from one point to another and, in a larger context, begins to resemble a great circle of being.

The heptapods are attempting to connect that circle through Louise, by helping her to teach humanity to use time itself as a language, much in the same way that people use movement through space to communicate ideas and emotions. While individuals move through time, they currently don’t possess the tools to manipulate time to use it as a form of communication.

What “Arrival” is attempting to do is challenge the audience to think about what a communications template would look if it involved the dimension of time as a language. The palindrome that is Hannah’s name embodies the idea that “Arrival” is trying to put forth, namely that there is no beginning or end. Time and life itself are simply a single, massive, unified story in search of a way that story can be communicated to all.

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