The ‘Arrival’ Of The Heptapods: Time Holds The Key To Everything


Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly and Amy Adams as Louise Banks in the film Arrival.
Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

Spoiler Alert: This post refers to key elements of the movie.

The audience around me was stunned silent at the end of Arrival, the new movie about a visit from advanced extraterrestrial beings based on Ted Chiang’s short story.

A movie about language, about how to communicate with creatures vastly different from us, left people in the seats speechless. Death, loss, despair, loneliness, perseverance, wisdom, love. Time holds the key to existence. To survival.

Contact with an alien intelligence would be, perhaps, the most transformative experience for our species. Especially if the contact were direct, if members of the species were to come all the way here, mysteriously, purpose unknown. To get to our small planet, they would have to have technologies that, to us, would seem like magic — like Arrival’s 1,500-ft.-high metallic cocoon-shaped monoliths that hover effortlessly in mid-air, defying gravity and capable (from hints in the plot) of faster-than-light travel. They would be god-like. And, like all gods, they would be adored or feared.

An invasion or, better, a visitation from such creatures would thwart the usual flight or fight instinct. To fight would be fruitless, although some lesser humans, usually those controlling vast arsenals and with bad judgement, would try. Flight would also be fruitless, since, like gods that control space and time, the visitors would be omnipresent.

The only solution is to try to communicate. But how would we “talk” to creatures so different from ourselves? What would their thinking processes be like, their value system? Are the whale-like sounds they make words? Do they have similar semantics rules? To solve the conundrum, expert linguist Louise Banks (played wonderfully by Amy Adams) teams up with theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly) in an unusual — and very welcome — alliance of the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. Some of the big questions ask that all of our knowledge bases work together, defying the academic walls we erect between the disciplines. Translating an alien language is certainly one of them.

“We need them to understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language can be messy and sometimes one can be both,” Dr. Banks says to an impatient but willing army colonel (Forest Whitaker). A hammer can build or destroy; what matters is the intention of who controls it.

Meanwhile, as the 12 giant monoliths (in a touching salute to 2001: A Space Odyssey) land along spots near the tropics, the world falls apart. Fear moves people into destructive action, society unravels. Those in power try initially to cooperate in their translation effort. But soon, competition between countries takes over and discoveries become secrets. The Russians and the Chinese stop sharing what they know and arm their weapons around the alien pods. The human tribe splits into national factions; war is around the corner, even if the aliens have issued no threats or threatening behavior. People can’t stand not knowing, not being in control. When so much is at stake, silence is a form of torture. But the aliens wait, as if time for them was something different.

At some point in the movie, the physicist asks the linguist if she has been dreaming about “them.” The movie plays on the “theory” that the brain has a neurological plasticity to reshape itself as one learns a new language, adapting to its quirks and structure. This theory — which is actually more than a theory, according to modern neuroscience — is used in the movie to spectacular dramatic effect. Dr. Banks’ brain reshapes itself as she cracks the strange iconographic language of the visiting “Heptapods,” whose language is made out of inky, black, loop-shaped blots that resemble Rorschach-test forms. A beautifully evocative sequence of loops reveals itself as a language that mirrors the most god-like power of them all, to “see the future.” Loops in time create loops in language. The Heptapods can do this and, in a cinematic dramatization of the challenges of research that every scientist encounters to some degree in her/his career — the battle with the unknown, the difficulty in cracking the mystery — Dr. Banks can do it to. She can see the future. She sees her life with her daughter before it happens, her relationships, her triumphs and her losses.

The Heptapods came to give humans gifts, to share their technologies, so that humans, 3,000 years in the future, could return the favor and help them in their time of need. They came to help elevate humans to a higher moral level, a level of cosmic alliance and friendship that makes current bickering and destructive competitive behavior seem ridiculous — red ants endlessly fighting black ants to no real gain. What is needed is what in game theory is called a “more-than-zero sum gain,” Banks explains to her teenage daughter: It’s when both parties have their needs and desires satisfied.

But can humans become seers collectively, rising above their tribal distrust of the “other?”

Only if the god-like power is proven to be real. The movie script cleverly mirrors the time-travelling power of the Heptapods, bouncing from present to future to past in narrative loops that resemble the collections of iconic black “words” that float on the misty-white background where the Heptapods hover. The aesthetics inside the cocoon monolith, where humans meet the aliens, is evocative of an altar, a white window not unlike a movie screen where we see the god-like creatures.

A movie that addresses time in such powerful ways has a mission. It confronts each one of us with our own mortality, with loss and the brevity of life, the unknowability of our own destiny. No wonder people were stunned into silence at the end. The story speaks to all of us, makes us think about where we are in life, what we’ve been doing with the time we have. It confronts us at the individual and collective level, as we witness the stupidity of our species, the war games, the fragile state of world peace, so quick to crumble under the smallest of perturbations — let alone one of alien proportions.

But herein lies the movie’s paradox: The fear is all our own. If anything, the aliens came to share their wisdom, to forge an alliance, to make humans better off. They came because they believe in our species. Too bad that we don’t — at least not yet.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of theInstitute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

Arrival movie review: Amy Adams could win an Oscar for this unforgettable, amazing sci-fi film

At this point if you still haven’t heard of director Denis Villeneuve I’ll just have to assume you’ve either been living in a cave or have very poor taste in cinema. With Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and now Arrival, Villeneuve has demonstrated ridiculous consistency that makes one wonder if he is actually human or one of the extra terrestrial beings in his latest film.

Based on Ted Chaing’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, Arrival blends thought provoking drama and science fiction to form an intoxicating, unforgettable audio visual experience. This is one of those films you won’t stop talking about and passionately recommending to your friends, and also a rare film of the year that actually makes you want to head back to the theater.


The poster for Arrival.

In Arrival, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist trying to cope with a tragedy from a few years ago. Her melancholic life is disrupted one morning when a bunch of extraterrestrial crafts appear across the Earth. Before she can even react she’s summoned by the American military to establish contact with the aliens through her linguistic expertise. That’s all you need to know about the plot because the knowledge of anything more about the film would take away the many subversive surprises it offers.

Like in many of Villeneuve’s films the central female character goes on an epic journey in the first act crossing a border of sorts into an unknown world, and the buildup for the same is gut-wrenchingly tense. The first time we see the alien crafts is a moment of breathtaking beauty – and because Adams’ character navigates through the situation like the eyes and ears of the audience it’s easy to get completely sucked into the narrative.

The first thing you’ll notice, of course, is how smart the film is. Unlike in movies like this year’s terrible Independence Day Resurgence there is a very real depiction of how the world would react if aliens did show up at our doorstep. It’s also nice to see characters that don’t make stupid decisions when things don’t go according to plan.

But the far more interesting aspect of the film is how the presence of the aliens renders commentary on us humans as a species and how callous and self-destructive we are. The default reductive nature of our collective human personality is quite toxic to the planet and Arrival lays bare the spark of the chain reaction that would start if the highest powers on the planet suddenly unite or clash in territorial defense.

But despite the heavy themes the film is not as lyrically philosophical as Terrence Malick’s films – in fact writer Eric Heisserer has made all these themes quite accessible to the average audience looking for an entertaining film with a sprinkle of intelligence. The final twenty minutes are in fact way too ‘idiot proof’ and you wish Villeneuve had gone the extra mile especially since he’d come so far from the mainstream zone.

Jeremy Renner has a small likable supporting role as a theoretical physicist who accompanies Banks to contact the aliens but the film belongs solely to Adams who carries the significant emotional weight like a pro. She’s pretty much booked yet another Oscar nomination here and if she wins it would be the first time since Aliens that an actress got the award for a sci fi movie. This also bodes well for Villeneuve whose next film is the highly anticipated sequel for Blade Runner, his official arrival into big budget Hollywood.

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 10:58 IST

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