Arrival and the Language of Cinema

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Margaret Roarty of the Just My Thoughts on It podcast.

The Moscow Film School was founded in 1919, a year after the end of the First World War. While the school was initially formed in order to bring the Russian Soviet Republic together through the use of propaganda, the Soviets were equally interested in how and why film was so effective as a medium. The Kuleshov Workshop, a branch of this school, was founded and run by Lev Kuleshov, one of the first film theorists. Since there was little to no access to film stock, Kuleshov focused on studying the psychological effects of cinema, figuring out the most effective ways to convey meaning through images. One of these experiments, The Kuleshov Effect, which was expanded upon by Sergei Eisenstein and later Alfred Hitchcock, showed how audiences derive meaning from different shots depending on the order in which they are edited together. While film pioneers in the United States, such as D.W. Griffith, approached editing from a practical standpoint – a way to retain continuity and ground the audience in a sense of reality – Kuleshov disregarded continuity all together and believed that editing could be used to manipulate the audience in order to achieve the highest emotional impact. Because of Lev Kuleshov and other filmmakers that came after, we now know that meaning is attained not from the images themselves, but their juxtaposition; the act of putting it all together. Context is everything.

In the opening sequence of Arrival, the 2016 science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, we see the birth, life, and untimely death of a young girl, the daughter of central protagonist Louise (Amy Adams). Immediately afterward, Louise is seen at work, seemingly disinterested in the world around her even when, to everyone else’s horror and wonder, aliens land on Earth. It’s clear that Louise is still mourning the death of her daughter, that she is a shell of her former self. Our perception of how Louise is feeling, the meaning we attach to her every movement and facial expression, is derived from the sequence that came before. The entire film hinges on the juxtaposition of these two opening scenes. In fact, Denis Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker had such a firm grasp on how editing affects the presentation of a story that they were able to pull off a twist that none of us saw coming.

Throughout Arrival, the filmmakers give each of us the tools to uncover the truth. While the editing creates context and influences us into assuming certain truths about the story – Louise had a daughter and her daughter is now dead – the story itself is begging us to take a closer look, to understand that the truth (something we often think of as immovable and objective and right) is only as real as our perception allows it to be. When the aliens arrive, Louise, a linguist, is hired to figure out how to talk to these strange creatures, the intention being for her to eventually ask them what they want and why they’re here. All the governments of the world are on edge, focused solely on the possible threat of violence and alien invasion. To them, fear of the other, of outsiders and strangers, those who are different, clouds their judgment. Seen through this lens, everything the aliens do is malevolent. It’s this kind of thinking, this radicalisation and fear-mongering, that brings us to the brink of destruction.

Before two soldiers plant a bomb inside the alien spaceship, killing one of the creatures and almost murdering Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner), Arrival shows the soldiers watching a radio talk show online. The show, whose host very obviously brings to mind right-wing American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, is a clear example of how what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it. It shows us how easy it is to twist and strangle the truth to fit your own narrative. Taking into account the spread of lies and misinformation following the 2020 Presidential Election and the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th 2021, Arrival now seems more timely than ever. In a film about language and communication, Arrival demonstrates how, as Abraham Maslow said, “If all I ever gave you was a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” a phrase Louise repeats towards the end of the film.

While the military views these creatures, later known as Heptapods, as hostile, Louise perceives them to be benevolent. Louise is patient and kind; she knows through her study of language that listening and learning is the key to understanding. She does not perceive their mere presence as a threat, she simply wants to connect with the Heptapods. Her curiosity about their language and her vulnerability is what allows her and Ian to unravel the mystery of what the Heptapods are trying to say.

Though the film is clearly on Louise’s side, Arrival is not about wrong or right, good or evil. It’s about the human condition, a study in why and how we respond to things we don’t understand; and, just as with film editing, the meaning we assign to them. When Ian first meets Louise, he introduces himself by saying Louise is wrong about the cornerstone of human civilization. Louise, of course, says it’s language, but Ian says it’s science. Neither is right and neither is wrong because that isn’t the point – the point is perspective. The movie is practically screaming at us to make sure we consider that everything is not as it seems. 

In the middle of the film, Louise begins learning the Heptapods’ language. During her time with them, she learns that their language is semasiographic – conveying meaning, not sound. Much like early silent films, the Heptapods rely solely on images. “Unlike speech, their logograms are free of time,” Ian tells us through voice over. This type of language is called nonlinear orthography. As she continues to immerse herself in this foreign language, Louise begins dreaming in the language, and the flashbacks of her daughter’s life and death become more and more frequent. During one of these dreams, Ian and Louise discuss how learning a different language can rewire your brain. “It’s the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis,” Louise explains. “It’s theory that the language you speak determines how you think.”

This scene is interesting not only for the information it conveys, but how it chooses to convey it. In the bonus features on the Blu-ray edition of Arrival, editor Joe Walker explained that this scene was originally much longer and the final cut was created by a happy accident in the editing room. While he and Denis Villeneuve agreed that the scene should be cut for pacing reasons, they realized that explaining the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis was key to understanding the end of the film. Joe Walker went on to say that in editing bits and pieces of the scene together, including using a bizarre jump cut of Jeremy Renner, they were able to create a nightmarish scene that better reflected Louise’s fragile mental state. This is just another example of smart and effective editing that, rather than keep the audience grounded, allows us to feel the way Louise does – disoriented, tired, and confused. It’s this ability to manipulate time and space that allows the filmmakers to construct the most satisfying and meaningful narrative. “Time,” Walker states, “is the editor’s superpower.”

Time, as it turns out, is also the Heptapods’ superpower. In the last half of the film, Louise finally discovers what the Heptapods want. In response to her asking what their purpose is, one of the Heptapods says, “offer weapon”. Because of Louise’s own views on the Heptapods, she believes this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. For all they know, the Heptapods could actually be talking about a tool, not knowing the difference. But it doesn’t matter. The other countries are on the offensive, believing the aliens have given them weapons to destroy each other, while Louise believes that they have all been given pieces of a puzzle to solve. To work together – not against each other. As a last ditch effort, and as the military tries to stop the other nations of the world from starting a world war, Louise goes back inside their spaceship. 

The Heptapods don’t want anything. Not yet, anyway. The Heptapods have come to give us something – their language. They offer it to us as a tool to save our world from total annihilation so that, thousands of years from now, we can help them in return. Louise is confused, wondering how the Heptapods can know the future. Suddenly, she is greeted with another flashback of her daughter and then, a bombshell: Louise is not remembering the past… she is seeing the future. The theory was right. Learning how to speak their language has rewired Louise’s brain. She can perceive time as they do. It’s not a straight line anymore, It’s all happening at once. Everything that is going to happen has already happened. The realization is a gut punch to Louise and to each of us – our truth is ripped away. Louise wasn’t sad or grieving in the beginning of the film, it was only because we saw her daughter’s death first that we assigned those emotions to her. Louise was a blank canvas that we painted our perceptions upon, much like the Heptapods themselves.

In the end, Louise saves the world. In a time rife with disease and poverty, where leaders are more concerned with lining their pockets than stopping a global pandemic, it’s a nice thing to see, a nice place to escape to. At its core, Arrival is a fantasy about what would happen if our world leaders finally put their own interests aside and did what was right for society – for humanity. And although Louise is altered irrevocably, although she can see her entire life, every single thing, before it has happened, and can feel the loss of everything she’s yet to lose, she chooses to do it all anyway. “Memory is a strange thing,” Louise says in the opening lines of Arrival. “It doesn’t work the way I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order.” It’s only now that we fully understand what she means.

We may never figure out how to see the future, or how to get all of the nations of the world to work together. Maybe we’ll always be afraid of the unknown and maybe, no matter how hard we try, we’ll always hate what we don’t understand. For us, time will always be rigid and fixed. But film can transcend time. It can alter and manipulate it. Film is a language too, a language that can be used as a weapon to sow dissent and fear, or as a tool to teach us that some things are universal; that maybe we aren’t so different from one another after all. Film can bypass language barriers. Film is a living, breathing memory of how we think and feel, how we live and die. No, movies can’t save the world, they can’t quell our desire for destruction or rid us of our thirst for violence, but with movies we can rewind and replay our favorite parts, skip the bad stuff and relive the magic. Even though we may already know the ending, even though it might not be the one we want, like Louise, we still choose to sit down and press play. 

Written by Margaret Roarty

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