Arrival – Dir, Denis Villeneuve. 2016.
“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.” – Louise Banks
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is as gentle as a Kubrickian film is ever going to get. Overbearing stoicism, captured in wide shots and a general sense of seclusion and alienation, one is not so worried about the aliens as a potential for hostility, but if this will actually change anything, one feels for the earth. Whatever this is, it is already above the idea of humans vs aliens, it is beyond the horizon, into a dark unknown, an unknown even those who travel through space and (potentially) time cannot enter.
Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks, who we see from the beginning has lost a daughter to cancer, in a flashback overcast with the idea of a dream made, then destroyed. The news comes in, as it always does and always will, aliens have landed…finally? It seems this way to Banks, who is nonchalant to the news, it’s clear to the viewer nothing could overthrow the hand life gave her, she cares not for the one dealt to the world. She’s asked by the government to use her skills as a linguist to communicate with the aliens. At the army camp, situated next to the ‘landed’ ship, she meets Ian Banks, a physicist, whom she has a relevant love interest with. I feel in the case the word ‘alien’ cheapens the detail and nuance applied to this film’s extraterrestrial, who I feel are at opposition to hostility, one has a sense of fright and worry, the extraterrestrials understand they are the strangers. Which at once gives the viewer the feeling of unease, who here is the authorative ‘species’ or genus, the hierarchy has been dissembled, we are at threat together.
The aliens or ‘heptapods’ landed in an oval pebble type ship, as high a skyscraper, yet gentle on the landscape, not too authoritative, not cold nor warm, there, still and settled.
The heptapods reside in there ship, within a lit room filled with what seems to be steam or smoke, separating them and the humans is, I guess, the heptapod equivalent to glass, the humans the other side, in their own large room…which is only illuminated with light from the heptapod side, and their own feeble technology (Glow sticks, lights etc.)
The heptapods bring a new illumination, one humans are only just becoming aware of, a world anew; and so the task begins of how to communicate. The illumination in a sense is post-Platonic, our minds are no longer the only source. Illumination of the Other? Or has the horizon simply ‘moved’. The Levinasian illumination (Existence and Existents) is inverted, the possibility and potentiality of hostility from light, a physical manifestation of uncanny-sense. We supplied the light to our own world for so long, and now an-Other supplies a new light, one that can go beyond our ‘known’ horizons, through time and temporality.
And so the task begins of how to communicate. The heptapods communicate via what seems to be 3-dimensional rings of smoke, the meaning of which change via the subtleties of the shape. Banks begins to understand the language as something which addresses time, addresses temporality, eventually leading her to understand that it can help one understand and view their individual history and future directly, a language that can take one within their history, within their future, within their time. A language in-keeping with Martin Heidegger’s theory of historicality:
[Death] is only the ‘end’ of Dasein; and, taken formally, it is just one of the ends by which Dasein’s totality is closed round. The other ‘end’, however, is the ‘beginning’, the ‘birth’. Only that entity which is ‘between’ birth and death presents the whole which we have been seeking… Dasein has [so far] been our theme only in the way in which it exists ‘facing forward’, as it were, leaving ‘behind’ all that has been. Not only has Being-towards-the-beginning remained unnoticed; but so too, and above all, has the way in which Dasein stretches along between birth and death. (Being and Time 72: 425).
Thus, Dasein, a being such as a human, one which can interrogate its own being is at all times behind its past, and ahead of its future. We are pushing our past, correcting and changing our experience with knowledge of our past, and attending to our past with direction towards possibilities of the future. So the language of the heptapods is a practical manifestation of Heideggerian historicality, praxis-language.
The film doesn’t however, extrapolate on whether the language is in favour of will, or is in fact fatalistic. The ending allows the viewer the knowledge that Louise Banks has seen her future, and that in fact the flashback at the beginning was a flashforward, and at ‘current’ she is witnessing her future, the one she will have with Ian, whom she met whilst working with the heptapods, they will marry, have a child, divorce, and the child shall die of an incurable disease. She decides to stay with Ian despite knowledge of her future, thus can she now – via heptapod language usage – change her future? Improve her relationship with Ian, have the child at a different time so it may potentially avoid the disease. It’s unclear whether at the beginning she (potentially) subconsciously knows of her future – this would be a possibility within the logic of the film.
These questions are classic philosophical questions, those of freewill, free-choice, determinism and fatalism, are our actions our own? Yet the questions are asked via a Heideggerian framework, one in which language is employed as spatio-temporally free-floating, existing outside of physics. A pure metaphysical language. A Heideggerian language of historicality, applied via a Levinasian ‘extraction’:
“Moreover, the very fact that a painting extracts and sets aside a piece of the universe and brings about, in an inwardness, the coexistence of worlds that are mutually alien and impenetrable, has already a positive esthetic function.” (Existence & Existents, Emmanuel Levinas, p48)
Usually it is only that of a physical ‘spatio-temporal’ object that can extract from culture, physically that is, an idea etc, an object such as a painting or poem or film carries with it a sense of time, an individual-time. The language of Arrival and that of the heptapods is the extraction of time from a fixed linearity, it is a language to remove the shackles, the individual’s time becomes economic, theirs. Though if the language is, as the film’s linearity would have us believe, fatalistic, then the language is but a curse, we can view our future and do nothing about it? A world learning of their unchangeable futures is a paradox in itself. To teach a class of students how to utilize heptapod language to view their future, would be to teach a class of linguistics students their future’s look very bleak, many of them will die and suffer loss, and will want to change their future, as such, the language only be a tool, a gift, a means to alter one’s future.
The heptapods act as the symbolic manifestation of a transcendental understanding of Heideggerian thought, an understanding in which one can transcend human limitations, break free of deterministic shackles.
Afterword: There is of course the argument that the heptapod language would be part of one’s ‘preset’ path, as such determinism still stands outright, the language may only act as the ability for larger states of flux within a preset horizon.