Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
I knew I wanted to see Arrival from the moment I saw the first trailer. I wasn’t familiar with director Denis Villeneuve’s previous films, but Arrival promised to be a visually stunning, thoughtful science-fiction film. Something that has been sorely lacking in the genre, at least amongst the traditional mainstream fare.
For those in need of a “brief” refresher, Arrival is the story of Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who is one of the world’s foremost linguists. The movie begins with what appears to be a flashback to Louise playing with a daughter, who is then absent for most of the film, the audience is led to assume the daughter is dead, except for apparent flashbacks, and we see “present” Louise in a very solitary and somber state. Quickly, world events take over as twelve alien ships arrive on Earth, and Louise joins a team of scientists trying to establish contact. The big twist is that the aliens, or heptapods they are called, communicate in a language in which their words appear all at once rather than in a linear string, as in human communication. The upshot is that because the heptapods communicate in such a fashion they it causes them to perceive time not as linear but all at once, via what is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. And because Louise is learning to read and understand heptapod, she also begins to have the same perception. This is when we, the audience, understand that the daughter that we believe has been haunting Louise’s memories is actually the daughter of her and another scientist, Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), and this is the moment they meet. In other words, because of her newfound fluency in heptapod, she now perceives past, present, and future as one. However, she also now knows that her and Ian’s daughter is doomed to die from a rare disease, and yet still chooses to begin the relationship with Ian. The question lingering over the ending of the film, though, is if she actually has the choice in that matter or if our lives are fixed.
Nothing in the film’s trailers, promotion, or previews prepared me for such a film, and certainly nothing prepared me for the emotional devastation that I felt after leaving the theatre. (See my earlier post on the film for some more immediate reactions and analysis of it, including an in-depth discussion of the in film temporal screwiness.) Now, having seen the film again for the first time since I left the theatre that Saturday back in November 2016 (note, this chapter was written initially in early 2018, over a year ago now), the weekend after the election of Donald Trump, I am still as leveled by it now as I was then, albeit I can now think even more deeply while watching as I notice all the little things that set up the reveal.
* * *
Consider the very first scene of the film. Louise narrates and muses over when the story of her daughter began as we see a montage of scenes of that daughter’s life. The film opens with the lines: “I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order.” In so many ways, this breaks open the entire film, but it only does so in retrospect: “used to think” and “memory is a strange thing.” This is how the entire film works, thinking and memory are both functions of a linear perception of time, and the film is constantly challenging that perception in the flashforwards to Louise’s daughter and the audience doesn’t even realize their true nature until Louise also realizes it.
Louise’s further observation of, “We are so bound by time” lays out the main question of the film in its opening moments. Humans are tied to time’s arrow, only perceiving its flight in one direction. So how can we, linear beings, deal with the perception of events that everything we know tells us have not happened, yet appear to be a memory. Hence: “memory is a strange thing.” And all of this, the tease of what is to come that we only understand when the film only has twenty minutes left, is set against the music of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” from The Blue Notebooks. The soft melancholy of its strings mimicking the wistful sadness of Louis’s monologue, letting us know that the little girl is already dead. A knowledge reinforced by the many solo shots that follow of Louise going to her job as a college professor in muted lighting and solitude. It is mind-bending when the audiences realizes that the daughter, Hannah, has yet to be born when we are led to believe that she is already dead.
For so much of the film, everything points to the fact that Hanna is dead. The very idea of a dead child and a lonely protagonist plays so well into the expected tropes of Hollywood, especially with the bubbling romantic tension between Louise and Ian: will the aliens be the reason for these two nerds to get together?!?! But oh, how the film brilliantly destroys all of these expectations, and in retrospect, we should have known. The haunting strings, the muted color palette, the visual framing, the quietness of everything in the film…all go against the grain of how such a story would be conveyed. Every visual choice makes the film feel haunted to the audience. In many shots of the first session inside the alien ship, Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young’s frame create alien perspectives. Characters are shown upside down, askew from our orientation. It heightens the discomfort of the audience and in many ways breaks the audience’s brain just as much as that of the characters. “Yeah, that just happened,” Ian says as a glow stick starts falling “up” and then to the side as gravity switches in the shaft leading to the room where they meet the heptapods.
But the most brain-breaking part of the film, and the one that creates the most haunting questions, is how the film destroys linear time. If you accept the film’s central premise of language causing us to perceive time differently (again, see my earlier post for a deeper dive into that topic), then so many troubling questions arise. If time is non-linear then there is no causality—cause and effect are equal and one does not necessarily follow the other in a meaningful way. Yes, there is still an arrow of entropy, the shattered tea cup will not spontaneously reassemble itself and leap onto the table, but if we perceive all time at once and we know the future of something or ourselves before we make the “choice” to enact it, then was it really a choice? Linear time, cause and effect, implies a freedom that does not exist for Louise once she learns the heptapod language. And this is the central conflict of the film that Louise expresses twenty minutes from the closing credits, “I just realized why my husband left me,” implying that she knows the reason (Hannah’s death), yet did nothing to avoid it.
But here is the thing: while the heptapods and Louise perceive time differently, the plot of the film, and indeed existence, still relies on linear time. Yes, part of it could be chalked up to the needs of plot and building tension, but it also says something more about how much of our lives do come down to individual moments. The reason for the heptapods’ visit is that they will need the help of humanity in 3000 years. Louise’s knowledge of Hannah’s future is the root of her separation from Ian. I have a PhD in musicology rather than a DMA in bassoon because of a drive from Lawrence, Kansas, to Lee’s Summit, Missouri, after taking a lesson and realizing that I would rather spend eight hours a day writing than practicing and making reeds.
Existence, indeed history, is still tied to ideas of linear time and some sort of fiction of causality. But the troubling question for us is that the uncertainty of the future because of our limited perception is also a sort of freedom. The idea of free will is so rooted in our philosophy, ideology, and identity that even if we believe in some sort of religious pre-destination, we still bow to the perception of free will.
But if we actually know the future, as Louise does, then do we still have any choice but to enact it? Could we change it? And if we did have the power to alter it, would we? For Louise, the answer seems to be…I don’t know. Her final statement is ambiguous: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.” Does this mean she still chooses to enact a future that she knows leads to the death of a child, her child? Does this mean that she embraced a future she cannot control? The ambiguity of it does leave open the question that I believe the filmmaker is wanting an audience to ask of themselves. What would they do?
However, in that very question is implied a choice.
This is the very human story nestled within Arrival. Despite it being a film about the global implications of first contact and the answer of the eternal question of “are we alone in the universe,” Arrival is a film about the very core of our humanity. Louise posits the question of, “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?” This is the revelation that Louise has amid the global events, and beyond the ambiguous answer she gives at the end, there is a question there that we all ask ourselves. A question we pose whenever we look back on our lives, cast our thoughts back into our memories.
We all have regrets, we question the choices we make: schools we choose to attend, partners we take in love and business, the children we create or not. The question that we all ask that makes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” the most overquoted, and possibly misunderstood, poem of the twentieth century. And in seeing that question play out on-screen that Saturday evening in November 2016, I, of course, went through all my own regrets and wondered if I would change things if I had known where they would lead me.
I have never been able to answer that question, by the by.
* * *
The moment in which I saw Arrival was at a particularly liminal point in my life, one which I am still very much living through–though with my move to Memphis I might finally be closing the book on and starting a new chapter. As with so many films I will talk about during this project, my experience of the film is inextricably bound up with the time in which I first saw it. Not only was it the week after one of the worst nights in my, and indeed so many Americans’, lives—the 2016 United States Presidential Election—but it was also not long after I had taken my most recent attempt at beginning a romantic relationship and had been rebuffed. No malice, and it wasn’t traumatic at all. I had misread signals and so on and we are still very close friends.
However, that moment, for me, had been a big step in what was part of a wholistic remaking of my body and mind. I had had a positive dramatic weight loss, the result of changing much about my daily life. But I was also still working through the psychological change that comes such a physical change. It is hard to explain just how much the mind has the old body image internalized and it makes you realize how you interact with the world depends on how you perceive of your physical presence. So, the fact that I had managed to make some sort of move was a big deal for me. And so, to be gently let down, while not exactly a devastating psychological blow, was not a great moment nonetheless.
And into all those churning emotions—devastating political moment, romantic rejection, wholistic remaking of body and mind—came Arrival. A film that made me question my assumptions about meaning, time, world view, and the nature of the universe. How do we make the choices we make and why? How and why is the future made?
As I was watching the film for the second time for this project, after having not seen it for almost a year and a half, I was also having a conversation with another close friend. She and I discussed similar experiences that made me question a parent’s relationship with their children and how we put unintended pressure on our children, though not in a malicious way. My friend told me of how her mother had asked if she should get rid of her wedding dress, the subtext being that my friend, not that much younger than I, is never going to be married. On my end, around a year or so ago, my sister’s mother-in-law went to my mother and expressed her sorrow that my mother was never going have any additional grandchild past the three my sister had because my sister and her husband had made the medical choice to make that scenario impossible.
In both of these cases, it was simply assumed that our respective futures had been set. My friend is never going to be married and I will never have children. Granted, I am somewhat sure at this stage of my life that I do not want kids (though I will always leave that door open if the right partner comes along), and my friend is pretty sure that even if she were to get married that would probably would not choose to do so in her mother’s dress. However, there was an assumption in these moments that possible futures were already closed to us. That me having kids or my friend getting married was not a choice we were able to make anymore. And this made me reflect on Louise’s “choice” in Arrival (if it was a choice) to have her daughter with Ian despite knowing the outcome. Parents’ project so much onto their children. Hope for the future, a hubris that their family, name, and DNA is worthy to pass onto another generation. Being born is one of the few things in this world that we have no control over, it is entirely up to our parents. But the subtle, possible, meaning of Arrival is that even that is not a choice in a deterministic universe that the heptapods perceive. Our parents are merely enacting the future that is already set.
It is implied that Ian leaves Louise because he believes she did have a choice and that he is angry at the one she made: “I just realized why my husband left me.” Again, though, Louise’s statement at the end is open ended as to if she has a choice or not. Does she embrace it despite having the ability to change it or does she embrace it because she is making the best of her situation?
Uncertainty in the future plagues us all, it is why making a choice is so hard and why so many live with regrets of their choices. But would knowing an outcome make it any better? Choice, or at least the illusion of it, gives us a sense of freedom and also hope. How would we react if we became simple agents of enacting the future in a deterministic universe? It is hard to imagine given our current limited perception of time how humanity might react to suddenly knowing the future. Though the novel and short-lived TV series FlashForward does muse on such a scenario, and the results, for humanity, are mixed.
* * *
One element that struck me upon my second viewing was the differences between Louise and Ian’s approach to encountering the heptapods and attempting to communicate with them. Of course, it is not surprising at all that Ian, the scientist, would attempt to communicate with them through the language of science and math. This is how all scientists at NASA have always said we would most likely establish any baseline for communication with aliens. It is how it is depicted in the next film I will look at, Contact.
But that wasn’t what was surprising to me, it was rather how Louise, ostensibly a scientist of language, takes a much more humanities like approach to communication. She focuses on grammar, basic vocabulary, trying to build a rapport with our aliens, dubbed “Abbott” and “Costello” by Ian. She sheds her encounter suit so they can see her. She touches the screen separating them. She is shown to care more about physical, meaningful interaction rather than cold science, and it is her approach that works. And the reason why this really hit me upon a second viewing is that it mirrors the two sides of my personality: Michael the scientist and Michael the humanist. Such a realization and recognition of the two sides of me playing out on screen shone a light on one of the biggest choices I ever made in my life.
I began my academic career as a physics major before I abandoned it for music performance. I sort of wound my way back to academics when I did my PhD in musicology, and even eventually became a scientist of sorts when I got my Masters of Science in Library and Information Science. However, despite my last degree being a “science” degree, I still feel like I straddle the line between being a scientist and being a humanist, and that I always have.
I am not unlike Louise in this respect because linguistics is defined as a science. Ian even makes this explicit when he says, “You approach language like a mathematician.” But later, during the film’s key scene in which Louise realizes that her visions of a young girl are flashes of her future, she says, “If you want science, call your father.”
I do feel like I have found a balance between the two sides of my personality, though. My draw to science was always the more theoretical and philosophical side of astrophysics and cosmology. I was obsessed with the big ideas that Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and later Neil deGrasse Tyson would discuss. I was more philosophical about science rather than interested in experimental design. Likewise, when it came to write my dissertation analyzing film scores, I would get lost in pondering philosophical ideas that the composer or director would draw upon. Was Kurosawa drawing on Humanism and Mizoguchi on Nihilism, and if so how did Hayasaka represent these two philosophies in his musical scores?
And then there is this project, using a more philosophical idea to ponder on how I read films and examine my own past.
Despite my coming to terms with leaving physics behind, I still look back and wonder if I made the right choice. Knowing the future, knowing where my life has led, I think my younger self would still make the same choice and probably for the same reasons. However, the question of where that other path would have led lingers in the mind despite me being at peace with the choice.
* * *
One way in which Arrival does conform to the tropes of science fiction is in its confirmation of the utopian ideal for humanity. That we can eventually overcome our differences and solve problems on a global level. For this, it is via Louise and her dramatic phone call to the leader of the Chinese forces that convinces him to come back to the proverbial table and share information.
It is possibly one of the major downfalls of so much sci-fi that, because of the strictures of time and storytelling, that most other races are defined as monocultures who have already worked out their inter-tribal problems and show a vision, of sorts, of what we humans are striving towards. In this way, Arrival ends with a confirmation of our utopic ideals not unlike Independence Day in that it takes an alien encounter—the realization that there is an entire universe out there bigger than us, knocking us form of our favored and special place in existence—to get us to finally set aside our tribal notions and form a new community that includes all humans.
In a (now not so recent) interview with the New York Times, Steven Pinker reflected that, “Innately, we favor family over strangers, our tribe over other tribes. It’s only when we’re called upon to justify our beliefs — not consult our gut feelings, but convince others of the right way to act — that we conclude that all lives have equal value.” Perhaps an alien encounter will force us to justify our beliefs, but I do hold out hope that something else, something more terrestrial, will come along to do it. We almost got there after World War II, but have since backpedaled so far that the 1930s look almost quaint by comparison.
Of course, Arrival’s reflecting upon me my disappointment at the world’s inability to actually move towards this goal in a meaningful way came on the heels of the election of Donald Trump and the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election. The fact that the film confirmed a utopia for mankind made the whole thing seem like even more science fiction than the rest of the film. By the time I saw Arrival, that weekend after the greatest existential catastrophic apocalypse of my generation (9/11 is in a whole different category), I had been so thoroughly disabused of any utopic fantasies for humanity that it just deepened my pessimism for our future.
And now, almost two-years into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, many people have either come to regret or more strongly embrace their choice. To me, the danger of all these questions, would you make the same choice, lie in getting stuck in regret and not looking to the future. We are immobilized by the specters of past choices and it stops us from making the next choice before us. In the end, regretting a choice is about as useful as the hypothetical of either “would you kill baby Hitler” or pondering a way out of the Grandfather Paradox. While I enjoy the spirited debate of both ideas, we must set them aside in the end and enact the choice in front of us.
Perhaps the reason why I have never had an answer to the question of whether I would make a different choice is because I recognize the futility in it. We can’t change our choices, and perhaps we never even had one. And at this moment, I am not sure if this thought is more liberating or depressing. And that uncertainty is perhaps the most haunting thought of all
* * *
One of the things that has stuck with me about seeing this movie was the reaction of my friends who saw it with me. None of them had the same reaction as I did, none of them were reading the film as a meditation on memory, causality, time, and choice. Or if any of them did, none of them were saying it. The vast majority of them being students of non-English languages, they honed in on the linguistics and translation aspects of the story.
Moments like this make me wonder if my brain actually works differently than those of most people. I want to believe that it doesn’t, that my point-of-view is rather mundane and pedestrian amongst the general population. I want to believe that because, on some level, I feel like I should not be different.
Perhaps it is my Midwestern background, perhaps it is that every intelligence test I was ever given says that I am not quite smart enough to be special, maybe it is because I grew up being bullied because I deviated from the norm (overweight, nerdy, musician, etc.), or maybe it is a hope that the rest of humanity can see the world the way I see it. That everyone will perceive the complexities of time, memory, and existence that I see. And perhaps it is because I do not believe that humanity is special in the universe, so how can I be special?
But if I do see things fundamentally differently than those around me, then that means I do have some perspective or position unique amongst the average person. And this is at odds with Arrival and all other first contact films’ revelation that humanity is not privileged. That the revelation of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence finally shows us that life is not unique to Earth. But if my point-of-view is different, if I have more in common with the creative forces behind the film than I do the general population, then my feelings after watching the movie are a mark of being apart rather than together with the average filmgoer.
And if that is true, then how much of that difference came down to choices I made and how much of it was predetermined by forces out of my control? The parents I had, the places I grew up? So much of our lives is truly out of our hands and controlled by the choices of others, and even the choices we do believe we make are less about an actual choice than the sum of all that came before, and possibly even all that comes after that is at the bleeding edge of our current perception. We may be unable to know the future, but perhaps we can at least glean its shape.