It’s good to be an astrophysicist – we realized it after watching “Interstellar.” It’s not bad to be a botanist either – the creators of “The Martian” proved to us. Perhaps it was hard to assume that the main character in the next space movie would be a female linguist.
The division into the humanities and the exact sciences is firmly fixed in our heads. Humanities mean “related to human activity.” And in the minds of most technicians, it also means “useless.” But in “Arrival,” the liberal scientist uses their knowledge to find common ground with another life form, while the physical scientist is “on the job|.” It turns out that useless linguistics is more valuable than such precise and reliable physics. How is it…?
There is much in “Arrival” that is new and mysterious to both the humanist and the technician. I suppose most viewers are primarily concerned with the ending of the film, but first, I’ll have to dive deep into linguistics for a little bit.
Circles, loops, and palindromes
Circles and closed loops are everywhere in “Arrival.” The very structure of the film is cyclical: it seems that the film begins with Louise Banks’s past, and the protagonist herself recounts these events using the past tense. But in the finale, it becomes clear that the opening shots depicted Louise’s future. For herself, the time came full circle after she began to understand the language of the Heptapods.
Heptapods’ time is cyclical. They speak of the future as a fait accompli. They know that in three thousand years, they will need the help of Earthlings, which is their motivation for coming to Earth. When one of the heptapods dies, his partner says to him that he is “in the death process.” For us, death is a point, a finale beyond which nothing exists. The Heptapods have a different concept of death: it is not a point in a segment, but a process, a stage in a time cycle.
The heptapods’ writing resembles circles. Louise Banks notes that the aliens use non-linear orthography; their writing does not involve sequential words and words of sounds and letters. The logogram, the basic unit of their language – expresses a complete thought. That’s why it’s so hard to understand their language for people who are used to assembling their ideas into discrete words.
The key to understanding the role of circles and cycles in the film is a conversation between Louise and her daughter Hannah. The mother explains that the girl’s name is a palindrome, and no matter which side of it one reads, it will always be the same. Like her daughter’s name, time for Louise takes on two directions – Backwards and forwards.
The Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity
In her conversation with Ian, Louise mentions Sapir-Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis. Philology students study this hypothesis in their first year, but these words mean little to the rest of us. And the theory is, in fact, very simple. It is clear that our consciousness gives rise to language. But Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf have suggested that the opposite is also true: the language we speak has a certain influence on our consciousness. Speakers of different languages perceive reality differently and even divide it into objects and phenomena differently. From this point of view, every new language we learn can expand our picture of the world a little bit.
In “Arrival,” the hypothesis of linguistic relativity appears in connection with the fact that not all researchers manage to integrate heptapod language into their own picture of the world. Their own linguistic picture limits their perception. Therefore, the Chinese take the phrase “to offer weapons” too literally and begin to prepare for decisive action. And Louise Banks guesses that “weapon” can also mean “tool.” She is in no hurry to jump to conclusions until she fully understands the logic of the Heptapod language.
Louise has an advantage over other scientists of the rest of the world in that she puts the scientific approach above everyday logic. That’s why she manages to go one step further and go beyond the earthly picture of the world. Other scientists approach the problem of extraterrestrial linguistics with their usual earthly standards. But this doesn’t seem right. They can’t let go of their human view of the world, which prevents them from dealing with it.
For the same reason, Ian Donnelly’s research is not as important as Louise’s discovery. It’s a funny paradox that we used to think that the language of mathematics is universal and can be applied to any phenomenon in the universe. But scientists are saying that the aliens don’t know Earth algebra – Louise’s knowledge is more valuable than Ian’s mathematical approach.
Louise’s strength is analytical thinking. She is faced with an incredibly complex, out-of-the-box task, and it can only be solved by altogether abandoning any comparisons to earthly languages. Over the course of the story, Louise gets deeper and deeper into the essence of heptapod language and even begins to dream in it. Only this deep dive allows her to understand time as the Heptapods understand it.
Difficulties of translation
Why does “Arrival” feel so topical? It seems that no alien ships have ever descended on Earth, and there is no need to save the world yet… However, the main problem facing Louise Banks and the other researchers is not communication with the heptapods but contact between different nations. At first, the scientists establish close contact and try their best to solve a common problem. But then, a misinterpretation of the Heptapods’ words causes China and Russia to withdraw from the alliance.
Why did the Heptapods need this global team building? That is a difficult question for me to answer. They could have gone straight to Louise Banks and passed their knowledge to her. Instead, each country in which the heptapod capsule landed was given 1/12 of the text – humanity’s task was to put the text together piece by piece. But people failed in their task. Although it would seem much easier to understand each other for creatures of the same biological species, speaking not so different languages (if compared with the Heptapods). However, humans failed to agree, while Louise Banks and the Heptapods succeeded.
The plot and meaning of the ending of Arrival
In the first five minutes of the movie, we are given the whole story of the life and death of Louise Banks’ daughter Hannah. The shots change rapidly, and Louise’s voice accompanies us through the dead girl’s memories. Or rather, through what seems to us to be memories. This is the director’s main trick, to make us believe that the events of the film unfold after Hannah’s death. But in the finale, we learn that this is not the case.
The first point in the film’s timeline is the arrival of the Heptapods on Earth. This is where the story begins. Louise, Ian, their team, and scientists from other countries investigate the aliens’ language, trying to establish the purpose of their sudden visit. At first, representatives of all nations actively share their progress with each other. But then communication breaks down, and Louise makes a significant breakthrough, leaving her colleagues far behind.
Louise Banks is the first Earth scientist who fully understands the logic and structure of the heptapod language. And one of the main features of the Heptapod language is its non-linearity. In particular, the Heptapods perceive time not as a sequence but as a closed circle. This is reflected in their language as well. Therefore, by speaking the Heptapod language, Louise also understands that time is non-linear. I want you to make of this moment: Louise does not gain superpowers to move through time like some superhero. Louise simply begins to see time differently than others do.
In the human mind, time begins at some point A and follows to point B. Therefore, in human languages, the concept of time is linear. Our present is at some point between A (the past) and B (the future). For the heptapod, past, present and future are points on a circle, between which we can move freely in different directions, not only from A to B. Therefore, heptapods know what will happen in three thousand years. By realizing how heptapods perceive time, Louise also begins to see her own future.
With this new understanding of time, Louise manages to talk to General Chan, who poses the greatest threat to the heptapods’ mission on Earth. In the film, this is shown as a vision, a flashback (only not to the past, but to the future). General Chan from the future tells Louise the details of their conversation, which are to take place in a few minutes. Specifically, tells him his phone number and gives Louise the last words of his late wife. Louise, in the present, uses this information from the future to make the call and convince the general not to open fire.
In the picture, Louise’s line in Chinese is left out of translation. The last words of General Chan’s wife are interpreted as, “War brings not victors but widows.
Returning from the heptapod ship, Louise says another essential thing. “I understood why my husband left me,” Louise tells Ian, who wonders: “You were married?” Not was, but will be – on the ship, Louise’s own future is revealed to her. She will be married to Ian, and they will have a daughter, Hannah. Hannah is destined to die of cancer, and Louise knows this now before her daughter is born. Louise ensures that she will not tell Ian about her vision when he suggests having a child. Louise also knows that she will have the courage to say to him later, but the opening will be too much for Ian to bear. Louise knows that Ian will leave her and their daughter, and she will see Hannah off on her last journey alone.
Louise Banks’s choice may appear to be a strange one. Marry a man knowing he’s going to leave you? To have a child knowing that you will outlive her? Perhaps it is odd indeed, resembling more of a blind resignation to fate than a conscious choice of an adult. But nevertheless, it is Louise Banks’s free choice. Knowing how much sadness she will go through, knowing that her choice will bring pain to her and Ian, and knowing that their daughter will perish – she still chooses to live this life and spend happy moments and hours with Ian and Hannah.