Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - Amy Adams - Louise - heptapod - hand - window

2016, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Arrival opens with a camera movement along the parallel lines of Louise Banks’ living room ceiling toward her large rear window with its view of two trees, a lake, and a cloudy sky. These details make her home a more earthly version of the aliens’ vessel where Louise and Ian meet the heptapods. The vessel has striated inner walls like Louise’s ceiling, and a long rectangular window looking onto a misty view. The two heptapods are like the two trees, only they branch out at the bottom instead of the top. In the closing scene Louise knocks on her back window to call Ian, just as one of the heptapods had knocked on its own window to alert Louise and Ian to the explosives.

Louise’s house is not the only location resembling the alien craft – there’s also a passageway on her college campus that’s striped by the imprints of wooden formwork. Likewise the long whiteboard in her classroom echoes the window where the heptapods appear.

Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - window - lake
Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - heptapods - window

There’s a long tradition of movies that create fantastic worlds from pieces of the everyday life their characters inhabit. In Stalker the Room and its antechamber are modeled after the apartment where the Stalker’s family lives. The characters in Oz resemble the people Dorothy knows from Kansas, and the fantastic characters in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are transformations of inmates and staff in Francis’s mental asylum. Arrival too weaves parallel tales of fantastic adventure and ordinary reality, except that ironically its tale of extraterrestrials visiting Earth is more believable than Louise’s personal drama. It’s easier to accept aliens manipulating gravity, traveling between stars, and seeing past the unidirectional limits of time than it is to imagine a human like Louise suddenly seeing the future just because she has started to learn a language that isn’t molded by temporal sequence.

However, the truth behind the fiction – the idea that motivates Arrival – is more believable than either of the two interwoven stories. Before getting to the common denominator, we can start by acknowledging that Arrival gives us two seemingly separate lessons. On a macro or geopolitical level, it speaks to a world that has become disconcertingly fragmented as competing nation-states fail to cooperate on urgent problems. Though production had begun earlier, it’s surely not a pure accident that the movie was released the same year as the Brexit vote, when rifts between world powers were deepening and a global surge of nationalism was becoming harder to ignore. On a micro or personal level it’s about how we can find meaning despite the brevity of everything we value, as Louise learns to overcome regret for her daughter’s brief life and her own failed marriage.

Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - Hannah

Within the movie’s fiction, the solution to both problems – unlocking the heptapods’ so-called “weapon” to bring the world together peacefully, and Louise reconciling herself to the fleeting nature of happiness – is to adopt a new view of time. The movie cites the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which says that the language we think in shapes the way we see the world. Being a linguist gives Louise an advantage: if she’s good at switching between languages, she should also be good at thinking in new ways. We’re told that learning the heptapod language lets her view past, present, and future together as if from outside of time, but we could just as well see her new skill as a metaphor for the leap of imagination needed to put Hannah’s premature death in perspective.

Stepping back from the fiction into reality, it’s not necessary to make a mere metaphor of Louise’s newfound ability to grasp past and future as something whole, co-existing with the present. Even if humans cannot entirely escape our linear conception of forward movement through time, even if the past is only accessible through memory, and the future through waiting, nevertheless we can grasp the logical conclusions of Einstein’s insight that time is a fourth dimension perpendicular to the three axes of space. The time we leave behind us and the time we’re moving toward would thereby remain fixed in the vast grid of space-time, and their existence is eternal. Neither Hannah’s life nor anyone else’s vanishes into nothingness merely because time moves past it. What seems fleeting from a human perspective is enduring from the broader perspective of physics.

The idea that unites the two stories in Arrival, the story of the heptapods and the story of Hannah, can be described as “de-privileging”. What distinguishes the heptapods, and anyone who grasps their language, is that they view time without privileging the present moment. Their circular logograms have no privileged points, no beginnings nor ends. Whether we privilege our momentary point of view over the past and future, or privilege our own perspective over others’, one of the tasks of philosophy is to broaden our vision by dissolving illusory privilege. De-privileging is needed for countries to escape the zero-sum game of economic and political rivalry. The fact that the aliens visit three military superpowers (United States, China, and Russia), hotspots like Venezuela, Sudan, and Pakistan, and other major powers like the United Kingdom and Japan, indicates that the movie consciously addresses a politically polarized world to show us the conditions for its remedy.

Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - General Shang

Palindromes, which are so important in Arrival, are a symbolic abolition of privilege – neither the beginning nor end nor either direction of reading takes precedence. Hannah’s name is a palindrome, and so is the violin melody from Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” that brackets the movie. Louise says “Come back to me” at both Hannah’s birth and death, and we are reminded that the heptapods’ bodies, spaceship, and logograms have “no forward or backward motion”.

In Arrival language and time are analagous because they both impose artificial limits on our thinking, persuading us to embrace unnecessarily narrow points of view. The solution to our problems, and the result of de-privileging, is to see things whole, viewing time, geopolitics, a child’s life, or anything else through multiple points of view at once. The heptapods’ gift takes the form of a puzzle, requiring humans to unlock their secret tool by combining 12 parts of a larger formula. The movie itself gives us a similar challenge, with two parts instead of twelve – if we can find the common purpose in its two stories, the science fiction and the personal drama, we stand to gain insight into the process of seeing things whole.

In two important ways Arrival is like an updated Casablanca for the early 21st century. Both movies speak to their particular moment in history, whether embarking on a war against tyranny or overcoming fractured international relations when cooperation against climate change and other problems is so pressing. Each film gives its audience a basic guide to action, which in both cases entails emergence from a form of isolationism. At the same time, both movies serve a second, more timeless purpose that is more personal. By putting time into a broader perspective and reconciling herself to her daughter’s brief life (even before Hannah is born), Louise learns the same lesson Rick and Ilsa do when he says “We’ll always have Paris.” She understands that she’ll always have Hannah, and in a similar way she embraces her marriage to Ian knowing he’ll leave her before Hannah dies.

Arrival - Denis Villeneuve - pod - valley - Montana - clouds

What’s at stake in Arrival is not only broadening our point of view to put time and self in perspective and form a harmonious society. It’s also avoiding the alternative, which the movie hints at in its many allusions to war. Ian comes from Los Alamos, a reminder of science’s role in warfare, whereas Colonel Weber selects Louise over another leading linguist on the basis of her superior understanding of the Sanskrit word for war. In Louise’s book she writes that language “is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” As we will soon see, Louise understands better than the soldiers and scientists around her that “weapon” can be understood in a constructive sense, and when she telephones General Shang she narrowly prevents an act of war. In an early meeting at the base camp the army and scientists had tacitly agreed when Louise posited that their goal was to discover the heptapods’ purpose on Earth. It’s fair to say that the movie’s purpose is identical to the aliens’ purpose – a gift of understanding that can give greater meaning to our lives and halt our trajectory toward war.


Casablanca – Value of fleeting experience; political and universal purpose united in one story

L’avventura – Palindrome as aid to vision; Anna/Hannah

Solaris – Domestic setting reconstructed in a more fantastic extraterrestrial context; essential foreignness of aliens; alien life presenting humans with gifts

Stalker – Protagonist’s home transformed at the heart of a more fantastic place

Enemy – Spider filling a room / dream of heptapod filling a room

The Martian – Importance of international cooperation; partnership between China and the United States