By Marsel de Souza
[WARNING: This review contains spoilers]
“Arrival” can be seen from three different points of view: as a portrayal of the spirit of communication among people from different cultures and languages in our time, as an account of the adventure of learning a foreign language, and as evidence of the visceral relationship between a mother and her child. It is compelling not only in terms of how each of these layers was developed, but also how they interconnect. Part of the beauty of the film lies in the dazzling barrage of semiotic elements that parade across the screen, which could not be more timely given its core theme.
First, wouldn’t it be bizarre if, precisely during the current boom in information and communication technologies, humankind was utterly unable to engage in a dialogue with newcomers to planet Earth? The premise behind “Arrival” is actually a pretext to probe into a more down-to-earth, yet serious, problem – the mounting difficulties people of different cultures face to understand each other.
Over one hour into the film, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) reveals that it will only be possible to make sense of the intention of the foreign visitors if each of the countries hosting the 12 “shells” cooperate in communicating with them, and even so some of these countries choose to isolate themselves in this endeavor; worse still, they are quite willing to resort to belligerent language in the face of a communication dilemma. As such, it is rather telling – and hopefully not premonitory – that “Arrival” was in production before the outcome of the British referendum and the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
An inclination towards alienation can also be seen when China attempts to use the rules of its traditional Mahjong game as a template for communication with the visitors – a clear reference to our unwillingness to try and understand others’ points of view. At the military base, note how the screen for monitoring the situation at the 12 sites with the mysterious shells indeed resembles a game board! The deadlock in the “game” of global communication becomes evident as countries break off communication and the rectangles they occupy on the board black out. Would this be the nations’ fear of sharing knowledge? Incidentally, director Villeneuve is very skillful in ensuring that a sense of fear of the unknown permeates virtually the entire film.
The Americans are also impatient with the slow progress of communication efforts, and have trouble understanding that when two such disparate civilizations first enter in contact a stage of “negotiated uncommunication” is required (and it is certainly this rushed approach that prompts China to go down the decommunication path).
Embracing a New Worldview
Dr. Banks is aware that the process of learning the language of “Abbott e Costello,” as the aliens are nicknamed, is in no way simplistic or obvious, and here is the second perspective from which to see “Arrival”: the truly epic journey that learning a foreign language can be, especially if it is the language of a culture from so far away (in this case, light years away… literally). The film is abundant with situations that are symbolic of the process of being immersed into a foreign language.
First, the changing gravity along the corridor leading up to the alien meeting chamber and the way the human team initially deals with the situation represent a beautiful metaphor for the need to embrace a new logic when learning another language. The shell will open for Dr. Banks’s team to converse with the aliens at exactly the same time every day, and this signifies the need for a steady approach to learning (this reminds me of an Algerian colleague who has a remarkable flair for foreign languages and cultures and is always telling me that “to learn a language well one must have the discipline to engage with the language on a daily basis”).
Language and cultural values are inseparable, and thus thorough mastery of a language requires immersion in these new values, which in turn calls for detachment from one’s own values. Hence, Dr. Banks realizes that in order to “break the ice” with the visitors she needs to get rid of her cumbersome protective suit (that is, she needs to break their complete disconnection in order to make communication possible). However, the glass wall, though transparent, still prevents her direct contact with Abbott and Costello (in other words, it is not enough to visualize a language; one has to experience it). And it is when she finally comes face to face with one of the aliens that Dr. Banks achieves full communication at a crucial point of the film.
The Bond between Mother and Child
It is also fair to say that the protective suit and the glass wall represent the scientific values of which Dr. Banks needs to strip herself in order to see and feel the circular glyphs in the alien language and accomplish full communication, which brings us to the third layer of “Arrival.”
This circular rationale behind the alien language is not a matter of chance: it echoes across other critical aspects of the film, such as the nonlinear temporal structure of the plot, where present, past and future communicate (I had originally used the phrase “interpenetrate each other,” but I could not help going back and changing it). It is also found in the name of Dr. Banks’s daughter, which forms a palindrome: HANNAH.
I also see a connection between Dr. Banks’s omniscience and the way the foreign language works – Dr. Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) explains that in order to draw the circular glyphs the aliens write simultaneously from both sides and thus need to know in advance which words they will use and how much space these “words” will occupy in the glyph.
The most critical aspect of this third layer is the clue in the final sequence of the film that Abbott and Costello are a mother and dying child, in a parallel with Dr. Banks and her daughter. It is not by chance that, when she flattens her hand against the glass wall and sees the extraterrestrial mother do the same, Dr. Banks feels immeasurable empathy, even though she could not be aware of what was going on at that moment.
The very last time when Dr. Banks enters the shell, for the most momentous communication of all, I saw the protagonist play the opposite role in the cycle of life – that of a daughter – since the ambiance felt as if she were surrounded by a sort of cozy liquid, which I interpreted as the amniotic fluid, reinforcing once again the circular aspect of the film. It is also worth noting that the shells resemble eggs.
I could go on writing indefinitely about the semiotic richness of “Arrival,” but I will choose to end this piece by going full circle and revisiting the initial theme to expose a glaring paradox: we now have increasingly more communication resources at our fingertips; but at the same time we have never had such a hard time understanding each other. At least I was pleased to note that, despite all the contemporary linguistic-technological capabilities, the message is unmistakable: technology is useless without human perception and intelligence combined with a sense of collectivism.
Marsel de Souza is a full-time interpreter and translator based in Brasilia, Brazil. Marsel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Portuguese Translation from the University of Brasilia and a Certificate in Advanced French Studies from Alliance Française. He is a member of ATA, AIIC, Abrates and Sintra. Marsel nurtures a true passion for cinema – and for science fiction in particular – and has recently started casually writing short movie reviews. “Arrival” was the perfect opportunity for a lengthier, more focused piece.
Image by geralt via pixabay.com