Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016)

Only some brief notes, including **spoilers**, owing to a lack of time…

Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is charged with establishing contact with aliens who have arrived on Earth.

Banks opens the film by asking a question to her class about Portuguese – why is it so strangely spoken given the location of that country? In Portuguese, it is common to refer to another human being as a cara, which literally means ‘face,’ although it also has a sense of ‘dear’. In other words, all humans have a face, and all humans are dear – no matter where they come from, who they are, or how long they live.

When Banks et al approach the aliens, spatial orientation is warped: sideways is upside down is the right way up. The aliens appear from behind a giant white screen, clearly of the dimensions of the contemporary widescreen cinema screen. That Banks and Donnelly are really talking to cinema is made clear by the fact that Donnelly dubs the two aliens whom they encounter Abbott and Costello: they are really just cinema talking back to humans.

The language of the aliens demonstrates a nonlinear conception of time: the aliens (shades of the Tralfamadorians from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) perceive all time at once. It is perceiving all of time at once that Banks will learn is the key to understanding the aliens who, as per Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2014), are basically here to help us.

The aliens are here to help us by giving to us their language, or rather their understanding of time.

In a world in which linear time becomes ‘meaningless,’ the distinction between life and death also becomes meaningless. That is, we know that we will die – and in the case of Banks, this means knowing that her future daughter will die of a rare disease and that she can do nothing about it.

Nonetheless, what Banks learns is to embrace this destiny and to give life to her daughter (although this will lead to a split between her and the daughter’s father, who will be Donnelly). Why? Because while we might fear death, it is worse that we should fear life, no matter how transient.

However, there are further extrapolations to make here.

When the spaceships leave, they in effect disappear, or dematerialise.

It is as if the aliens simply flip into the dimension of reality with which humans are most familiar, only to flip out again.

What this tells us, beyond the life that is Banks’ daughter, is that all matter – perhaps including all antimatter (that which exists, but not in the human dimension) is alive, or has the potential for life. All matter has a face. All matter is a cara. All matter is dear.

There is confusion in the film regarding the use of the word weapon. Might it really mean tool? Might it mean something else?

It is disclosed that the weapon that the aliens give to humans is their language, their nonlinear conception of time, which, in allowing humans to see life everywhere in principle brings about world peace.

Why does it do this?

It does this because in recognising that all matter is alive, in recognising that everything is dear, or has value, then it becomes the role of humans all to become woman, or more pertinently to become mother. A literal mother in Banks’ case. But a mother to all matter. To nurture the world and the universe by extension. To take care/cara of the world.

Where humanity has gone wrong is precisely in the concept of the weapon. For, while the give to us a language, it might be that this language is a weapon. However, what this ‘weapon’ really is, is a gift.

This is important for Banks. Because while we hear about/see the traumatic (future) loss of her daughter, she is also working through the fact that some Farsi translations that she did for the US government led to the deaths of various people – as she off-handedly remarks to Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) at her point of recruitment.

In other words (not unlike Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, who is working through the deaths of various people whose schemes he exposed in The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1974), Banks is dealing with the trauma of having used language as a weapon and not as a gift. Or, put differently, of using information as a weapon, rather than realising information as a gift.

When information is a weapon, then only some things are dear/cara/have a face, and the rest is discardable, expendable, can be killed. When information is understood as a gift, then we can come to see not that some things are dear, but that all things are dear – that value is evenly spread across the universe and across time, including the virtual time of when matter spins out into antimatter/different dimensions, before spinning back into the material world of the human dimension. Everything has a face.

So… if the aliens are really cinema, then what Arrival suggests is that cinema’s chief gift is to show us universal life and universal time, even the time of the virtual (that which does not exist, parallel dimensions and so on). Cinema is alien. Cinema is intelligent. Cinema is alive. Linear time is an illusion. Is is an illusion. The becoming of the universe is life.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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