Arrival: Giant Aliens & the Importance of Language

There are films that are better told through a linear plot. Some films, however, turn into cinematic beauty for their lack of chronology. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001) is a great example of this; so is Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), which made me curse a lot in a certain post.

So is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), a surprisingly amazing film that plays around the concept of time. I have a lot of feelings insights about the film because it shows the importance—and difficulty—of communication.

Seriously, turn back and watch the thing before entering the danger zone.


Okay, so a small background of Arrival, in case you were so blown away by the film that your brain decided to selectively forget the plot because it was all you were thinking about and it was becoming toxic:

A linguist and a physicist, together with the US military, attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial creatures called heptapods in order to determine if they’re harmful or not. That’s literally it.

But if you want a more detailed plot, you can read the short story, Story of Your Life (written by Ted Chiang), because they based the film on this. Or, you know, watch the film again because it’s that good. Shout out to the composer of the soundtrack, it made me cry inside.

If the plot was that simple, what makes it so amazing?

In medias res or ab initio?

For the entire first half of the film, one would assume that the plot is in chronological order—Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Banks, had a child who died of cancer and now she’s a melancholic professor of linguistics who’s hired to communicate with aliens—but then come the revelation that every flashback she has with her daughter is actually a flashforward.

Wow, right? This, for me, is the main reason the film is soul-crushingly beautiful. Not only did they apply the element of nonlinearity to the heptapods’ language, they also applied it to the narrative itself. Bless the author for this ingenuity please lend me your brain.

In relation to communication

What I love about Arrival is that it actually mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This concept states that language will always be a part of culture and, in some readings, language defines culture (correct me if I’m wrong, though). It isn’t explicitly stated in the film, but from what I have analyzed, the theory itself is applicable to the heptapods.

The heptapods, as mentioned in the film, use a language that has no concept of time (as we know it); their “words” are arranged in a nonlinear way such that if a sentence is translated into English, it wouldn’t have any structure and would only consist of a bunch of words. From this, it can be seen that their language reflects their culture because these creatures don’t follow a linear time structure, just like their language.

Also, the heptapods’ language can be explained using the semiotic tradition of communication! I’d elaborate the explanation here, but that’s a different post for another day.

It’s impossible to see it right now, but my communications student self is squealing with delight.

Coffee stain, or so they thought. (source)

The tragedy of it all

During the ride home, I kept wondering why I felt so sad after the film ended—no, it wasn’t because the film ended. It took me a long time to realize the tragedy behind this sci-fi story.

If we arrange the story and turn it into a linear plot, the film would end with Banks lying on the bed with her daughter’s pale, breathless body as she whispers, “Come back to me“—the same words she used when Hannah (the daughter), as an infant, began crying after being taken away by a nurse.

To make things more awful, the film would imply that Donnelly, who turns out to be Hannah’s father, left Banks because he couldn’t accept the fact that Banks has seen the future and that Hannah, no matter what they do, will die of cancer.

Of course, the film would be less thrilling to watch had it been more focused on the tragedy of it all. Thank God it was primarily sci-fi. Still, it managed to plant some sadness into my subconscious. Great job, film.

Final Thoughts

The first thing that made me like Villeneuve’s Arrival is that it is a subtle representation of the humanities and social sciences being just as important as natural science. Thanks to the teamwork of linguistics and physics, the world is saved from a potential war against seven-legged, ink-pooping aliens. Communication, a crucial action often neglected by everyone, is also a possible emerging theme of the film. Or it could only be me being biased towards communication because I’m a communications student. I don’t know, okay.

Arrival may be sort of slow in the beginning, but once the plot pulls you in, you wouldn’t be able to recover from the whiplash. It’s one of the most captivating films I’ve ever watched, but that may be because I watched it in the cinema.

If you’ve managed to read all this, but haven’t watched the film yet, congratulations! You’re now more spoiled than a one-year-old cow’s milk. Who knows, though, you might still find the film amazing.

So, would I watch Arrival again? A million times, yes. Would it be worth your time to watch it again? A billion times, yes.

Also, who am I kidding—these aren’t final thoughts. I’d be thinking about Arrival for a very long time.


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