When I wrote the review for Arrival a week ago, it was a different world for many. Less than a week ago, the established Democratic presidential nominee, one of the most unliked and untrusted candidates in history, was poised to win the election under the protests of even her own supporters. At the time, harbingers were sounding the sirens about the economic distress faced by the American public in all corners of the country. The economic signs had been around for years, but were summarily ignored by the political elite in favor of an urban-centric neoliberal economic plan. At times, it seemed as if members of the same party were speaking different languages at each other.
Watching Arrival on the eve of the most contentious election in my lifetime, I was struck by how immediate the conversation was. A group of aliens suddenly drop onto the world with no reason, and nobody can communicate with them. Instead of speaking English, the aliens have an intricate visual language completely made from abstract ink rings. A single ring can have a series of deviations that create a complicated concept with no beginning or end. In order to figure out just what the hell this group wants, the military has to recruit a linguistic professor. Louise builds the bridge between the aliens and the military by first teaching the aliens her language, then learning their language, and finally teaching their language to the military.
Thinking about Arrival after the election, the lessons are taking hold. Remember that unliked and untrusted presidential candidate expected to win? She lost. She lost to an even more unliked and even more untrusted presidential candidate who, by almost all accounts, was expected to lose. Watching news anchors watch the votes come in on Tuesday night was akin to the beginning of War of the Worlds. This group of aliens descended from another world and took over the expected narrative. Faces dropped, news anchors bargained, cajoled, and had Come to Jesus moments. Finally, the news anchors stumbled onto the idea that there was a group of voters who made their presence known and the anchors had no idea how to communicate with them. This wasn’t unexpected.
The aliens in Arrival are essentially Tralfamadorians, the race of aliens created by Kurt Vonnegut. Tralfamadorians made their first appearance in The Sirens of Titan, a book about fate and becoming unstuck in time. In Titan, a Tralfamadorian explorer was stranded on Titan for 200 millennia after a key part to his space ship broke. To deliver a replacement part to the explorer, the Tralfamadorians manipulate the history of Earth. One Earthling finds himself unstuck in time and location, existing as a constant wave in a galactic spiral. Another rich Earthling billionaire unwittingly has his life upended, becomes a Martian slave and fatalistically delivers the replacement part to Titan. This is all pre-determined.
The Tralfamadorians made their second appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five, where they are four-dimensional deterministic beings who have no beginning or end. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, through a wartime accident, becomes unstuck in time and sees his life in a fractured pattern from the start to the end. As he learns how to exist in a non-linear state from the Tralfamadorians, they discuss time as a constant in the same language as width or depth.
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
In both Slaughterhouse and Titan, free will is stripped away from humanity, pushing fatalism and passive determinism as the philosophies ruling people’s lives. The fatal hand of the Tralfamadorians destroys each Earthling’s ability to change their own life, as they are merely functions of a larger timeline. The Tralfamadorians’ manipulations of human fate are already determined to exist and always happened.
In turn, the Heptopods of Arrival are multi-dimensional beings who can see the beginning and end of time. They arrive on Earth to teach their language to Earthlings because, in 3000 years, the Heptopods will need the help of the Earthlings. The help required is unknown – for all they say, the Heptopods will require a metal part for a space ship stranded on Titan – but they will require a united Earth who can communicate with the aliens in the future. In turn, they offer the Earthlings the gift of their language which, when fully understood, will cause people to become unstuck in time. Their arrival on Earth is fated to happen, and the lives they touch are always set to be touched. Global peace is predetermined to happen because it will benefit the Heptopods in the humans’ distant future (Arrival 2 does not need to happen).
When Louise learns the Heptopods’ language, she experiences a stupidly extreme version of linguistic determinism. The theory posits that language determines the way you experience reality. One experiment, the Daniel Everett study, concerns a group of Brazilian natives who only had the words for “one,” “two” and “many.” After eight months of trying to teach them how to count to ten, they could not wrap their heads around the concept because their language didn’t have the terms for their entire lives.
Louise’s experience breaks this experiment, simultaneously defying the basis of the theory and reinforcing the idea. As she learns the language, one which has no beginning or end, she becomes unstuck in time and realizes her memories are actually her future. This is the gift of the Heptopods to the world: to teach everybody their language so that humans could become unstuck in time and experience life as a fatalistic constant.
The weak variation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a theory that forms a building block of linguistic determinism) posits that language merely influences thought. It’s the foundation of liberal thought games that seeks to curb -isms by banishing the language that enables it. In essence: if you don’t use the word faggot, you won’t be homophobic. Similarly, if you just use the word gay, you’ll become an enlightened being because your thought processes will have changed to avoid the damaging language. It’s a bunch of feel good hippy propaganda that refuses to believe a person can believe in a damaging theory even if they are able to use the proper language.
Arrival‘s usage of this theory goes both ways. The feel good politics extends past the use of language and into the (rather racist) understanding of foreign government and policy. Remember that the 12 alien ships landed in 12 different sections of the world, including Australia, Russia, and China. Each government connect to each other via an international satellite version of Skype where soldiers permanently facetime each other in the moment of crisis. Despite the different nations connecting with each other through the interface, they all have their own different attempts to communicate with the aliens. China somehow communicates with the aliens the fastest by teaching the aliens how to communicate through the game of MahJong. By using a competitive game to form the basis of translation, it influences those Heptopods’ understanding of communication with humans. Subsequently, they can only communicate through combative terms like Flower and Winter. Therefore, they communicate that their gift is a weapon.
The Heptopods ultimately manipulate the governments of Earth to work, if not as a singular unit, then at least in concert with each other. Of course, this is all the result of a ridiculous ticking clock syndrome where China sets a 24 hour time limit before they decide to attack the aliens, and promptly shut down communication with all the other countries involved in the alien dealings. Russia, who had been following China’s lead, decided to follow suit and shuts off communication and all of the countries follow suit for some unknown reason. The international coalition was particularly weak if everybody is an important keystone.
This breakdown of communication sets up Louise the Linguist to be an action movie heroine by experiencing a moment out of time that informs her how to solve the solution of the present. All time is all time. In the future, at a very chic and expensive party for government and business elites, the Chinese general tells her that she changed his mind by calling his private number and telling him the words of his dead wife. Under the pressure of the ticking clock, Louise is finally able to pull this information from her memory of the future to solve the problem in the present day. She has to steal a satellite phone to place the climactic phone call, facing a showdown with American soldiers while she hurriedly tells the general the information he needs to stand down. Of course, this was all pre-determined.
After Louise solves the problem with China, everybody comes back online, and the world magically comes together to solve the “gift” of the Heptopods (earlier, through some seemingly sketchy mathematics [about as sketchy as the film’s thoughts about linguistics], Louise and her physicist partner figured out that each ship has one bit of the overall language and they all need to be assembled to provide a complete picture). This unification of all nation governments can be read as a feel good message of global interaction and a cry for peace. But, especially in the midst of this election, the unification feels like Arrival is trying to sell the American public on Globalization.
Globalization, in the modern sense, includess the reworking of international trade deals and the further development of a New World Order. In a paranoid interpretation, the rampant free trade of NAFTA and TPP/TTIP will march the world into a singularity of governments and cultures irrespective of their current economic status, Beginning with NAFTA under Bill Clinton and continuing through the now-dead TPP/TTIP deals under Obama, the ideal of globalization is to unite the globe as a singular economic force. However, it has the (un?)intended consequences of suppressing the blue collar worker by giving all of the profits to the 1%. Note the trappings of the party where Louise meets the Chinese General. She meets him at a very fancy, chic, bourgeois party where everybody is dressed sharply, bathed in a warm glow, and drinking champagne with the movers and shakers of the country. The 1% and the world leaders are in a completely different stratosphere as everybody else. But, without this movement of capital, Louise would never have gotten the number.
By depicting the unification of disparate governments around the world as a positive, Arrival indulges in the hippy feel good aspects of the globalist movement. It will unite us for peace and love. But, it also adds in the argument of globalist inevitability. During all of the elections this year, one of the biggest arguments for globalization is that its already happening and nobody can stop it. They made this argument in the face of Brexit, in the face of Bernie Sanders and in the face of Donald Trump. But, what Arrival forgets is that globalization has a human cost.
That isn’t to say everything fated is a positive. Louise knows she will have a child, and that the child will die of a rare disease. She knows that her husband is going to leave her when she tells him the future. These things cannot be changed because they’re set in time. Toward the end, Louise asks her husband, “If you knew the future, would you do anything to change it?” Her answer, aligning itself with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is “no.” The experience, no matter how hard it hurts, is always worth the positives. Because this message comes so close to the globalist message, it almost seems intent on selling the positives of globalization and downgrading the negatives because the profits are ultimately worth it.
Regardless of your opinion on globalization, the movie uses racist tropes to build its global coalition. China is an aggressive oppressive force that needs an American influence. Russia is similarly threatening, but is also aligned with the communist and militaristic country of China. Britain ditches us without a second thought. Americans are duplicitous and double back on their word regardless. It’s all so simplistic and provides no interest in understanding any of the cultures outside America.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival engages in political propaganda without seeming to consider the implications of its messages. It’s so flimsy and empty-headed about the ideas it presents that it becomes laughable. What’s worse is that it plays straight into the feel good liberal ideals, rather than challenging any of our ideas about our world.
Before the election, Arrival‘s plea for communication among disparate parts of the globe felt trite and the geopolitics were empty. After the election, the plea for communication feels urgent but fraught with problems, and the geopolitics become distressingly tone-deaf. Even if Arrival gets the individual stories correct – Louise is an emotionally consistent character, though the twist adds little to the film – it’s distressingly shallow in any larger global contexts.