What We’ve Got Here: “Arrival”

By Jordan BrowerDecember 12, 2016

What We’ve Got Here: “Arrival”
IT’S HARD TO TALK ABOUT the beginning of Arrival — not just because it features the death of a child, the daughter of Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Like a Finnegans Wake for everybody, Arrival plays with both language and narrative circularity, upsetting our expectations of beginnings and endings. Further complicating matters, the movie doesn’t really get going until the moment when Banks, an eminent linguist, walks into an empty lecture hall. The real world, in the form of an alien invasion, has taken precedence over study; Banks is a teacher in search of students. (In this regard, Arrival is the opposite of The Martian, which ends with Matt Damon lecturing to a classroom full of hopeful astronauts.) This abandoned classroom is the pictorial equivalent of the question that we ask college graduates: “What are you going to do with that degree?” We begin, then, with two deaths: of a child and of the academy.

Banks’s initial motivation for helping the military decipher the aliens’ inscrutable language is to best her rival, Professor Danvers at Berkeley. She does so by asking whether he knows the Sanskrit word for “war” and its etymology. It’s a telling question. Danvers thinks the word, gavisti, comes from “argument,” when the right answer is “a desire for more cows.” In other words, “war” has a fundamentally pecuniary (from the Latin pecu, cattle) meaning, and one that we would suspect a person named Banks to know intimately. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the concept underpinning Arrival, holds that a language shapes the worldview of practitioners. That being the case, the initial picture of the academy here is bleak: saving the world is a positive externality resulting from professorial competition for recognition and funds. When Banks meets the theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they square off over the relative importance of their disciplines: she thinks language is the foundation of civilization; he thinks the cornerstone is science. If this is the academy we have, we’d have to ask if it’s worth saving.

And then things start to turn.

But maybe I’ve begun wrong.


As an instance of the “hard science fiction” subgenre, Arrival has been the subject of commentary by linguists who have been asked to weigh in on the movie’s disciplinary accuracy. Some have appreciated the degree to which Arrival presents Banks as a scientist; they laud Donnelly’s compliment of her, “You approach language like a mathematician,” and they bristle at the fact that she ends up performing the task of the translator. Coming from a different angle, critic Darren Franich complains that the film contains a lot of “pop-science whiteboarding.” The academics and Franich agree, though, that the depiction of linguistics as a science is important to the film; this reading is supported by the movie’s production, which involved consultation with McGill University linguist Jessica Coon.

But the mathiness, the seeming exactitude of its scientific signage, is not what makes Arrival effective. Arrival is effective because it knows that the whiteboard contains some nonsense, and Banks erases much of it (Donnelly exclaims, “No, no, no, not the top!”). She then writes the core problem of the movie in the blank space in a nod to high concept: “What is your purpose on Earth?” It’s hokey, of course — we are of course supposed to ask ourselves the same thing. And the scene works not because of the rudimentary invitation to philosophize, but for demonstrating how philosophy and indeed all analysis starts. It is a pedagogical moment seamlessly embedded in the reality of the narrative — the formal antithesis of the didactic interludes in The Big Short — and this is not “pop-science” at all. This is real reading: this is critical inquiry based on close reading. Banks, it turns out, is a really good teacher, not necessarily of hard-science linguistics — she never really explains her computational methods — but of something more solidly, less sexily humanistic. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Donnelly are her students; so are we.

It’s unfortunate that Arrival was released on November 11 instead of six months ago. Now it seems to chide us for too readily falling for the assurance of polling numbers, for not knowing how to properly construe the data. But at the same time, it argues for the necessity of a humanist education in a time of posthumanity. Everyone seems to like it when Donnelly calls Banks a mathematical thinker, but everyone also seems to miss Banks’s response. She doesn’t nod and smile and say “that’s right”; with a thousand-yard stare and a monotone voice, she says “I’ll take that as a compliment.” That is, she does not let the study of language be reduced to mathematics, even if, in her capacity as a linguist, she’s aided by the methods of other disciplines. Digital humanists, especially those invested in the computational analysis of narrative: heed the warning. Arrival does not advocate for a monodiscipline. Rather, it claims that the study of language is as necessary to saving the world as physics. Language and science are both cornerstones of the civilization we should want. Collaboration pays off for both Banks and Donnelly since the proper understanding of the alien language results in a transcendence of the linear flow of time.

Utopian science-fictional hoo-ha this no doubt is, but the practical lesson is banal and absolutely necessary: we need smart people to work together to solve our common problems. The reduction of jobs in the humanities has forced many of us to jealously guard our thinking in the fear of being scooped. Arrival calls bullshit on that approach when communication with the aliens stalls as a result of each country cutting off its satellite links and siloing its information. In order to achieve this kind of open collaboration, though, we’d need a different academy. Perhaps that’s just a different utopia.


Arrival makes a case for literacy and for qualified individuals to teach it. But, this being a Hollywood movie, the specific kind of literacy that it advocates for, above all, is movie literacy. Arrival is about understanding the movies. And to understand the movies, we need to understand the movie business, or, as film scholar J. D. Connor puts it The Studios After the Studios, we need to bridge the gap between story and backstory, between the narrative itself and the economic and social forces that constrain and enable its production. Put differently, to figure out what a movie means, we need to discover the efforts and intentions of the multiple agents responsible for the movie’s creation. Here, we come upon a decades-old problem: who is the author of a moving picture? In addition to the director, the screenwriter, and others, we must also take into account a different kind of person. A corporate person — a studio — expresses authorial intentions allegorically through the movies that bear its signature (MGM’s Leo the lion; Warners’ shield; in this case, Paramount’s mountain haloed in stars). Per Connor, a movie, then, is the “home of collective reflection, where competing visions of the current industrial configuration can play out.”

Sound crazy? Perhaps. And yet …

Since the silent era, it has been a dream of producers and critics alike to conceive of moving pictures as the true universal language. The legendary D. W. Griffith, for instance, is reported to have said, “We have gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We have found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever.” Banks’s book, containing the solution that saves humanity from itself, is called A Universal Language. Her method amounts to interpreting beautiful, cryptic images and finding the hidden meanings that can change the way we think. The allegory for cinema is clear, but the question is, is it motivated?

A seemingly off-hand reference to Abbott and Costello is our gateway. In a movie as generally humorless as Arrival, the jokes mean something. Ironically, it is Donnelly, not Banks, who initiates the joke, naming the verbally inexpressive Heptapod aliens after the loquacious Classical Hollywood comedians. The squid-like aliens communicate via those beautiful, cryptic images. Those signs, when thoroughly comprehended, open the perceiver to a nonlinear conception of time; this is Sapir-Whorf taken to the ludicrous extreme. When asked how he imagined himself writing from the position of the Heptapods, screenwriter Eric Heisserer explained how he thought in terms of his position in the industry — how his own screenplays, after production, had worked:

TODD VANDERWERFF: Screenwriters talk about trying to get into the heads of their characters, but two of your most important characters here were effectively omniscient aliens. How did you get into their points of view?

ERIC HEISSERER: They were particularly difficult for me. Here I had characters who already knew the ending of my script before I’d written it. Quite often I was frustrated by them.

So whenever I got lost in the woods on adapting “Story of Your Life,” I’d go and I’d look at a screenplay that I’d written that had already been produced. I had a completely different perspective on that.

All the words had been written, then I could see the finished product based on that and where it deviated and sometimes why. Oftentimes, I had a moment of depression.

But I could come back with a larger world view and imbue in the behavior of the Heptapods, a kind of tranquility that I just didn't have as a human being writing the thing.

They were aware of how it was all going to turn out, and their gentleness in treating humanity, even for all of our flaws and all of our misbehaviors, was really a source of inspiration. I built, basically, with Abbott and Costello, two of the greatest motivational speakers I could.

We might say that Heisserer had to imagine his future self in order to write the Heptapods, but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. For screenplays aren’t written alone: the supposed hundred-plus drafts for this movie involved, at the very least, collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve. So we would be better off imagining those omniscient Heptapods as the collective apparatus of the production companies that gave them form. Heisserer, then, in his own story, would be Banks, with her corporeal body and single mind, trying to understand the mind of Paramount. Here’s Heisserer: “I feel like I had an emotional connection to Louise, who's all about clarifying intent. As a linguistics expert, her job, especially facing down an alien lifeform, is making sure we all understand what it is that they’re trying to say and what their purpose is.” Arrival isn’t the first artwork to conceive of a corporation as a cephalopod. That distinction, I think, goes to G. Frederick Keller, who depicted the railroad monopoly as an octopus in his 1882 political cartoon “The Curse of California”; Frank Norris’s The Octopus: A Story of California, the logo for SPECTRE in the James Bond series, and Matt Taibbi’s characterization of Goldman Sachs follow. By this reading, Heisserer runs against the grain; he is rather optimistic about corporations — his squids are “two of the greatest motivational speakers.” This conception of Paramount as a benevolent entity has deep roots; according to Jerome Christensen, Sunset Boulevard (1950), perhaps the major Paramount film of the midcentury, argues that “in Hollywood, only at Paramount were the directors and their stars more important than the studio […] — a hierarchy that was integral to Paramount’s identity.” Paramount’s self-presentation, coincident with its logo, has long been one of generosity to its constituents. Heisserer reclaims the corporate squid from the satirical lineage of Keller, and Paramount is happy to oblige.

G. Frederick Keller, “The Curse of California” (1882)

What Heisserer leaves out of his account of the screenplay is that the Arrival’s plot turns on a quid pro quo. [1] The Heptapods need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future, and this, as Banks and Donnelly would say, is the movie’s true “non-zero sum game.” The jury’s out on whether the Heptapods are truly good or evil; what we do know for sure is that they’re self-interested, and humanity is an investment that pays off. So what we have here is a perfect alignment of intentions: the screenwriter and the studio each benefit from the story that is told.

It is no surprise that the movie doesn’t, in the final analysis, make sense. We could say that Arrival runs up against the same old problem of causality that time-travel movies always face, necessitating a deus ex machina solution. But we can redescribe the problem as one of interpretation and hence of knowledge: how could a person ever really think like a Heptapod or a corporation? The answer, of course, is that one can’t, but one can try. What separates Arrival from other time-travel movies is that its narrative failure has a diegetic alibi: Banks doesn’t fully understand the alien language, but she knows it well enough to get by. This realization emerges most evidently when Banks enters the alien ship and, floating alongside Costello, converses with it in their picture-language. She asks where Abbott is, and it responds — as presented in subtitling — that Abbott “is death process.” “Death process” — dying — is not idiomatic English, and what we see, written for us, is not a perfect translation but a rendering of Banks’s understanding. This, it seems to me, is a crucial moment marking the hard limit of a human mind, working within the confines of human language to understand an ultimately intractable xenolinguistic system. If I’m right about this, then the movie is retrospectively recast not as a third-person omniscient representation of events — such a perfect vision of a fourth-dimensional understanding of space-time is only perfectly available to the masters of the language — but as a representation of events as inflected by Banks’s consciousness, with her imperfect but improving understanding.

Again, though, she knows enough to get by, and the film is patterned at every level on her competent but necessarily limited knowledge of the language. And the limits of human language, of human conceptions of time, are also the limits of cinema — a fundamentally time-based and therefore unidirectional medium. The Heptapods’ circular logograms, with their multi-directional representation of time, become Banks’s daughter’s name (the palindrome Hannah), become the narrative beginning and ending at more or less the same place, become the repetition of the slow tilt down from the ceiling of Banks’s home that begins the first and final sequences. None of this is perfect circularity or full transcendence of the linearity of time. It is only an intimation thereof. But this is as close as a human mind, ultimately incapable of full attainment of Heptapod fluency, can get. Transforming a generic flaw into a narrative and formal strength is the movie’s stroke of brilliance.

So Banks’s problem of learning to read the alien logograms becomes our problem of learning to read the movie. She doesn’t, perhaps can’t, fully grasp their system of signs and think like they do; neither, for that matter, can we fully grasp the images on the screen and think like Paramount. But Banks gets the system enough to avoid a failure to communicate; Arrival wants us to do the same.


Jordan Brower is a Lecturer in English at Yale University, where he teaches in the Writing Seminars program. His academic writing can be found at https://yale.academia.edu/JordanBrower.


[1] I am trying very hard to avoid the dad joke; consider this a compromise.

LARB Contributor

Jordan Brower is a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University. His academic writing can be found at https://harvard.academia.edu/JordanBrower.


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