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Arrival Explained- Linguistic Relativity, Louise’s Daughter, And Free Will

Memory and time are unrestrained in Denis Villeneuve’s heartbreaking and poignant Arrival.

Official trailer screengrab

Space is often used to explain the human condition. The cold, endless, unknowable vastness of space somehow makes for a perfect place to explore all of our greatest strengths and weaknesses. Whether or not life exists in other places also makes for thought-provoking entertainment. We as a people are inherently fearful, aggressive, and selfish. Would other lifeforms be as well? Arrival examines that through the lens of time and memory and what it truly means to love.

The film, which initially hit theaters in 2016, is akin to other slow-moving thoughtful films like Contact and Ad Astra, which featured some gorgeous imagery but were primarily focused on the whys of space as opposed to the realities of it. The lonely time an astronaut must endure away from their friends and families, the years spent in solitary blackness with only memories to sustain them, are both used to crystallize what really matters. Some would say that is life at all costs. Others would point to Earth itself. Arrival whispers that love is what really matters. Regardless of how fleeting or eventually painful, it is better to love and have lost than never to have loved at all, especially when time is non-linear.

In Arrival, a dozen extraterrestrial ships have landed in various places worldwide. Amy Adams’ Louise Banks is a well-respected linguist and has been brought in to communicate with the aliens. Physicist Ian Donnelly(Jeremy Renner) joins her, gradually making sense of the inky shapes written by the massive heptapod creatures. Eventually, Louise can translate their language and tries to share it with all the other landing sites. Unfortunately, before that can happen, the Chinese misinterpret a message and begin making declarative statements of war. As paranoia sets in, other countries follow suit. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that each landing site has a portion of the alien’s message. When all twelve parts are combined, the full message can be decoded.

It’s at this point that Arrival drops its final heartwrenching bomb. Once Louise understands the alien’s language, she views time as they do. Everything past and present is a continuous loop, both happening simultaneously. What we thought were flashbacks to Louise’s daughter’s life and death are things that haven’t happened yet. Louise uses her future knowledge of meeting General Shang to convince him that she not only understands their language but our understanding of time is wrong. She tells him his wife’s dying words. When they meet in the future, he tells her these words, and her knowledge of them convinces him she is telling the truth. He stands down with all other countries complying as well.

From this point, Louise begins a relationship with Ian and gets pregnant with her daughter knowing full well she will die. The knowledge that she knew all along what would happen is the thing that eventually causes Ian to leave them and sever their relationship. Louise sacrifices her happiness to live in the moment, as long as it lasts, with her daughter.

Is it time or language that is important in Arrival?

Louise’s visions of Hannah in the future are presented as memories throughout the film. Louise seems so unhappy, and because the visions are coming to her just as we see them, the viewer assumes they are memories, but they are visions of future events. Louise even asks the aliens who the child is she has been dreaming of. The more she understood the alien language, the more her concept of time and memory changed without her knowing it.

Ian hints this is due to linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The theory posits that language can shape perception. Words and how they are used can shift the fundamental thinking of those who use them. Curiously the approach itself is an example of how language can affect perception. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf never co-authored a paper and never collaborated on a hypothesis. Sapir was primarily against the idea of linguistic determinism, while his student Whorf was a proponent. It was another student of Sapir’s Harry Hoijer; however, that coined the phrase.

The current understanding of linguistics uses a more balanced approach. The idea that language can influence understanding works in conjunction with Connectionist factors. Connectionism is the concept of cognitive learning that says memories, feelings, and language all combine to rewire the brain into new connections. Philosophers have long argued whether language is essential to understanding the world around you. Plato argued against sophist thinkers who believed language was the only way to experience the world. Roger Bacon believed language was an impediment to seeing eternal truths in the world, and Immanuel Kant believed language was just one of many tools used to understand the world.

Sadly American linguist Dwight Whitney believed Native American languages should be eradicated because he deemed them savage and coarse. Franz Boas actively argued against this idea of linguistic superiority. Human language must have seemed so primitive to the heptapods in Arrival. Thank goodness they don’t subscribe to Whitney’s same rule of thought.

The more Lousie understands the new language, the more her visions of her future daughter intensify, indicating her changing mind. The aliens shared their language as a way to hopefully unlock our minds and help usher in a more peaceful existence.

Official trailer screengrab

Doesn’t this understanding of time take away free will?

One of the biggest questions asked in Arrival is whether Louise decides to have Hannah or if her future memories determine it. The idea of free will in this film depends on your opinion of Louise. Does she choose to start an affair with Ian and have her daughter because she knows her daughter’s life is worth the pain of her eventual death or is she fated to have her daughter and thus never has any free will at all? As a parent myself, I choose to believe she willingly decides to choose eventual pain to ensure her daughter lives even briefly.

Because time is so circular, it is hard to know where decisions begin and end, if they ever do. General Shang tells Lousie his wife’s dying words in the future because he needs her to know them to stop the escalating violence in our present. This would indicate another choice he made to alter the past by making a decision in the future. Looked at another way, though, it could be an example of an inevitable decision heavily influenced by knowledge of the future.

The moving ending of Arrival highlights essential truths about humanity. We are flawed and messy but capable of redemption. Hopefully, if given the same choices, we all would choose hope over power and fear. Perhaps that is the heptapods greatest lesson. When we know what will happen, does this change our mistakes in the present? Like Louise and Ian, whether we view Arrival as fatalistic or hopeful depends on our experiences. To live is to love. Choose to be kind.