“Language is the foundation of civilization. It is a glue that holds people together, and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
That line is quoted by Dr. Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, from Dr. Louise Banks’ thesis (played superbly by Amy Adams), an advanced linguist, when they first meet each other on a helicopter trip arranged and led by a US military leader, Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) for a mission to making a contact with 12 strange shaped unidentified objects contain a race of alien (which are later called, The Heptapods) that suddenly appeared in 12 countries on Earth. The brief, but keen-witted, scene is from Arrival—the latest feature directorial work from Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian filmmaker—a movie based on an award-winning science-fiction-existentialist novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang released in 1999.
The first time I watched Arrival in theater, I was not automatically connected. I knew it’s a film with the tremendous level of techniques and details. I understand the movie, but I found it was not entirely explicable.
It was the time on my way home when I was struck with some kind of consciousness. The imageries from Arrival lingered on my mind and they were getting stronger and stronger each time. The film was like calling me to come back to it. Like the line Amy Adams’ character repeatedly said in the opening sequence, “Come back to me… come back to me”. It was like a plea, solicitation, and even a prayer. But, I didn’t immediately fathom what’s so fascinating and exciting about the movie.
And then I went for a repeat viewing, a day after I watched it for the first time. I let go my imagination, I absorbed the details, and the most important thing was I dismissing my ego.
And then that was it, the moment of enlightenment. I reached an understanding, in a full circle. Now, I don’t only like the movie, but I’m awe-struck by it. Arrival is a rare movie, these days in an era of films with futuristic setting misinterpreted as sci-fi, wrapped by the accountable using of science and knowledge. It’s a movie with almost no gimmicks because every little detail counts. It trusts our intellectual to digest and to interpret. It’s not only a great sci-fi movie. It’s a great movie.
The story of Arrival is the story of Amy Adams’ Louise Banks. It follows her journey, a kind of spiritual one, to find the meaning of her existence. But, it ends up as an extraordinary spiritual journey that not only succeeds in revealing her fate, but also the core of human existence, through language.
I’ve read the novella on which Arrival is based. Although Arrival delivers the same energy and emotion like the novella does, the way it tells its story is unlike its source material. Arrival tells its story in the manner of non-linear orthography language. What is that actually? Orthography is a set of rules about the way a language is written including spelling, emphasis, and punctuation. Bahasa Indonesia and English, for instance, are linear orthographies since we write and read it from left to right. Arab language, even though it works in the opposite mechanism to English and Indonesia, also belongs to linear orthography category. Because those three languages have such clear rules about how and when a word or a sentence begins and ends.
A non-linear orthography language, contrariwise, has no clear guides when a word or a sentence begins and ends. The language of the heptapods aliens in Arrival is also non-linear orthography which is written in circular puffs of dark smoke produced by their tentacles, with no beginning or no end. Their language has no alphabets or scripts. The creatures from outer space in this movie communicate with logogram, a collection of symbols formed a circle that can stand for a word, an entire sentence, or feeling. Since the aliens themselves don’t experience linear time, their logograms can put words in any order without changing the meaning of the message. Arrival gives us a series of information about the events occur in this movie like the logogram, as if it’s in a loop of Aristotle’s Theory of Causality, which is the beginning and the ending; the cause and the effect, and both of them exist at the same time. The words of “beginning” and “cause” represent the past, as both of them refer to the preceding events or the start. The words of “ending” and “effect” reflect the future, as they refer to the following events or the finish line. Arrival makes us experience its entirety of the thought, emotion, perception, and reason all at once in tandem with the past and the future, not just in an intertwining or progressive order.
Language is indeed the key word in this movie, a very powerful noun whose multiple functions, such: as a tool of communication, either written or spoken or using body gestures or signs or signals or even through a series of imageries; as one of ways of knowing (the others are included emotion, perception, and reason); and as the weapon, like the line quoted by Ian Donnelly. This movie even merges its functions since it communicates with us and, at the same time, provokes our ways of knowing through cinema as its language.
The concept of language and communication is even used in the attention-grabbing and emotional opening sequence montage which is accompanied by On A Nature of Daylight, strings quintet score by British composer, Mark Richter, which is also used in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island—that shows a brief encounter of the cycle of a young girl’s life, guided by the whispering narration by Amy Adams’ Louise Banks. The way she whispers her words is like a lullaby, an apostrophe, and a sonnet all at once. She is questioning the concept of existence in a lyrical, forlorn, personal and motherly way. She longs for something and wants it to return to her belongings, something that she is meant to be. And there’s no better music than Richter’s in substantiating the emotional element of the sequence.
But what is it she longing for?
“I used to think it 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…”, Adam’s Louise Banks starts her story.
The montage sequence whose structure like vignettes is a brief summary of a life: a baby is born, grows up into a young girl, and then suffers an unidentified illness before she finally passes away. It is the most emotional and heartbreaking opening montage only second to the dramatic Michael Giacchino’s waltz-esque score brought us to tears through the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up.
The opening sequence, shot in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life aesthetic, also shows an evolution of language as a means of communication through the speaking voice or the facial expressions: from the moment of happiness of a mother in welcoming her newly-born-baby; the moment of togetherness of a little child and her mother while they’re playing in a grassy yard and sharing some laughter; the moment of intimacy when the little daughter says, “I love you” to her mother; the moment when the little kid yells, “I hate you” angrily to her mother; to the moment of grief and sorrow when both of them are facing the hardest time of their life. The sequence shows us how language evolves along with the development of the brain, physical and emotional of the daughter with her mother, Louise Banks. But camera focuses its shot on the daughter, following her evolution in adapting language and expression as a tool of communication. The mother is her audience.
“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived”, by these sentences, Louise Banks gets her understanding about what actually happens.
But, we’re still looking for what the movie is talking about as scene by scene goes by.
Louise Banks’ whispery voice over performs the function of the epigraph, which is commonly found in the preamble of a book or in a chapter whose intention to suggest its theme or even the entire of the story. Arrival is a Villenueve’s film, which means there are a lot of his cinematic trademarks in it. The way the opening sequence is being presented in this film reminiscent of Villeneuve’s cinematic demeanor.
Villeneuve is well known for his tendency to approaching film in the same way we write an article or story. In writing, the first sentence should be something that grabs the reader’s attention. Villenueve uses his first scenes or sequences to establish a tone and draw in audiences immediately. Or in literature we call it epigraph. Typically, his opening sequence is very important in the context of the entire film, but the real meaning or value of it is not always apparent or obvious until much later.
In his Enemy (2013) — coincidentally resembles the theme of alien encounters –, for instance, opens with a line that functions as the epigraph from Jose Saramago’s The Double, the novel on which the movie is based.
“Chaos is order, yet undeciphered”
The epigraph in Enemy actually suggests that there are some senses of clues of it if we only know how it can be deciphered. The opening line, then, is followed by an intriguing and provoking scene, which takes place at a sex show, the kind of show we also find in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Later, in the same scene, we see our first spider (I assume it’s a black widow spider), crawling out of a golden shiny tray and then we see a lady’s foot is about to step on it, intentionally and consciously. For you who have already watched Enemy will understand the connection between the epigraph, the opening scene, and the mind-blowing ending.
The aforementioned illustration exemplifies how Villeneuve utilizes his opening scenes to hint at a reoccurring theme and message in his films.
Arrival is no exception.
His preference for maximizing the technique of editing mixes up the conscious with the subconscious in his narrative. He unfurls the underlying message in dialogues or unexpected extreme close-up shots on, we might think at first, a random object. Villeneuve also often features music or score while the camera gradually tracks away from a scenic shot into a more structured one, by alternating shots with contrasting ones in order to bring audiences into a forced perspective. Without context, his creative decision would get audiences confused, but he combines it with music, cinematography, camera movement, and facial expressions on the actor to make a powerful statement. The result is, instead of being disoriented, audiences will anticipate many important aspects to come throughout the entire of the movie, because Villeneuve’s opening scene establish important aspects of his films such as setting, the topic, and the tone. In short, every little detail in his film counts.
Another Villeneuve’s signature technique we can find in Arrival is the exertion of mystery. He always purposely restricts the perspective of his films to his main character(s) to create a puzzle. With this set-up, his characters are searching for the answers, and so are the audiences. This set-up also helps to bring a twist forth at the end of the story, where, if we once reach the end of the story, we would get the comprehensive understanding about the previous events shown in the opening sequence. It means that most of Villeneuve’s films have a full cycle.
The camera works by Bradford Young (cinematographer for Selma, A Most Violent Year) is brilliant here. He uses Amy Adams’ face as a canvas of observation, continuing Villeneuve’s cinematic traces, and inviting us to study her contour of emotions.
There’s a riveting scene in Arrival of which showing why Amy Adams, 5 times Oscar nominees, is the perfect actor for the leading cast in this movie. The scene is when Adams’ Louise Banks and her students first finding out about aliens encounter. One of her students asks her to turn the screen into television as breaking news program reporting the unusual events. In typical using of news footages in films, the camera will shoot the television. But, in Arrival, Young’s camera chooses to observe Louise Banks’ reaction and put her in a separate blocking with her students while the voice of news anchor is echoing and giving us the information, but also isolating her character. We can see how Louise Banks as a respected linguist absorbs the information and digests it through Amy Adams interpretation.
The scene continues Villeneuve’s tradition of shooting his main character in isolation shots. Before the aforementioned scene, Young’s camera follows Louise Banks as she enters the campus where she is lecturing. She walks straight and adamantly, even she is passing through some boisterous and curious crowds who are watching breaking-news programs. The camera isolates her from the crowd to indicate that she is a very focus lady. She once looks toward the crowds, shows some curiosity, but she keeps on walking to her class. This series of isolation shots establish Louise Banks’ character status, that later on, be revealed in a conversation.
Arrival is a compact and elegant film. Its pace is slow, as it unveils its mystery steadily. This movie builds the conflict and tension through communication, debates, and arguments surrounding the meaning of heptapods’ writings. The conflict is based on “lost in translation”. This movie is also involving a geopolitics issue, like we once saw in Eye in the Sky, as the heptapods landed on 12 different countries. Audiences who expect some spectacled combats between aliens and humans will get disappointed. But, once again, this movie is aimed as the nutrition for your brain, not only as a feast to your eyes.
I’m intrigued by how the heptapods space crafts are designed. These 1500 feet black monolith-alike space crafts resemble sloping half-ovals (a line and a circle at once) and each spacecraft is a detached entity. They’re like 12 separated-pieces waiting to be united. The number of 12 symbolizes the time. The clock which has the form of a full circle. In my theory, those 12 spacecrafts represent a variety of big cultures on Earth and together they will form an enormous full circle. Like the mechanism of time that always repeating itself or like the heptapods’ language, or like the structure of this movie.
I read this insightful book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, in which Terence Deacon noted, “In this context, then, consider the case of human language. It is one of the most distinctive behavioral adaptations on the planet. Languages evolved in only one species, in only one way, without precedent, except in the most general sense. And the difference between languages and all other natural modes of communicating are vast,”
Arrival provokes the same topic as Deacon’s book implies. The main idea is questioning the concept of language to influence someone’s behavior and personality, mannerly or culturally, by which one changes his/her pattern of action to better suits the new environment.
I speak fluently in three languages: Indonesia, as my native language; English, the language I started speaking when I was 10 years old; and French, the language I started to learn when I was 14 years old. I rarely use it on a daily basis, but French influences how I interpret art and food, as my fascination for French began to develop since I attended a ballet class in my childhood.
I feel that my personality can be split into three different cultures and the way I express myself, more often than not, is only able to be channeled through a language only. For example, when I enjoy a product of high art (beaux arts/art majeur), I would use French to express myself. Otherwise, I would speak or write in English to express my ideas about mass art (pop culture) and I would use Indonesia to have a conversation about daily life, as the majority of my friends speak this language.
I also tend to sing better in English or French. But mastering three languages have helped me to understand three different cultures comprehensively. There were many times when I burst into laugh watching a French movie, while the other audiences didn’t laugh at all. My point is there is a barrier in language as a means of communication. The way humans languages evolving have their own flaws, as they require the speakers and the recipients to agree on every part of the process, including the interpretation which needs a whole understanding about the context and the culture all at once, instantly.
Deacon’s book and Arrival intrigue me with the basic question I once had when I was younger about, “What was the first human language like before it evolved into thousand of languages we find today? Is it possible that someday, in the future, our languages going to merge into one and universal language? A language sans frontiere?”
As Amy Adams’ Louise Banks gets a better understanding of Heptapods language, she begins to envision her future. Does it mean mastering Heptapods language help her to be a clairvoyant? I’m not sure. But, in my theory, the ability to see beyond the time is a part of Heptapods culture and the way they’re thinking. Like when I got attuned to the French language, I could understand them.
My hypothesis is that the Heptapods intentionally making appearances in 12 different countries to seek for someone who can learn their language. As two friendly Heptapods, Abbot and Costello (they were named by Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly after linguistically challenged famous duo), said to Louise that, “they need humanity help”.
This moment when Louise meets with Abbot and Costello without any barrier (previously they communicate to each other through an invisible wall), and the friendly Heptapods are finally able to transfer their knowledge without any hesitation from Louise. This is the moment when a language becomes universal. This the moment when Louise realizes that she’s able to experience the future while still living in present time, and the time she has to see her destiny and she apparently has to accept it as well.
This the time when I’m aware that Arrival works on a theory of linguistic relativity, called Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory which proposes the idea that the language we’re speaking reflects or shapes the way we think.
A friend sent me a private text questioning whether the Heptapods performed a function as a deception to the whole story or not. I cannot agree, but I don’t fully oppose to his perception either. In my interpretation, the heptapods is the trigger for human beings to unite as one voice, without any barrier. It’s a metaphor of an idea to conceive a tranquility and harmony using language as a tool, not as a weapon.
That what makes Arrival transcends beyond its traditional role of a movie as an art or just as a mass entertainment. It not only offers an idea but also a solution. It starts with questions, but also gives us the answers. All at once. At the same time, in a full circle.
Like Hannah, the name of Louise Banks’ daughter, the film purports to use flashbacks and forwards in subsequent viewings by the way of a palindrome. It carries us to feel the emotion, perception, and reason in order to get a whole understanding. Again, in a full circle.
Reviewed at Epicentrum XXI, on January 7, 2017
Running time: 116 minutes
A Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures International release of a 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films production. Produced by Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, Karen Lunder, David Linde.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Based on novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Camera(color, widescreen): Bradford Young
Editor: Joe Walker
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Music: Johann Johannsson
Art director: Isabelle Guay
Casts: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker