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If aliens could land on Earth, a staggering feat it itself, what other technologies could they possess?

Spoiler Warning

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Is it possible to remember the future, to experience time all at once instead of as a relentless arrow? Can we “know” the future in a similar way we kind of “know” the past?

Arrival is a story about a world very much like our own where its possible to see into the future by breaking down cognitive barriers that construct our current experience in life. The tool that gives creatures the ability to think that way, to know the future just as we know to the past and experience the present, is language.

While I thought the story was elegantly told with stunning visuals and a quiet and well-researched contemplation, this idea of experiencing the future didn’t ring true to me for those of us not in this fictional world. Scientific theory about this is complicated, and mostly just that, theory, because our understanding of time is so crippled. It feels oppressively constant, and like a constant forward thrust that thrills us and breaks our hearts, but we can’t pin down what it is. We are at its mercy, but we can’t wrap our minds around it.

The main theory that structured the whole story, Sapir-Whorf, – the idea that whatever language we speak can alter our worldview, is a bit shaky when taken to extremes. Scientists do agree that what language, or languages, we speak can alter our cognition and how we view the world, but the level of difference seems to be a bit limited. This film not only argues that language is the bedroom of civilization, but that it could profoundly alter our experience of time to the degree that we can experience the future similarly to how we experience the past, that it’s possible “remember” the future. This idea is a bit shaky for a number of reasons, but one is that the past itself, at least in how we perceive it in in our minds, is not a fixed thing. Our memories are deeply flawed.

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I haven’t read the short story by Ted Chiang that Arrival is based on, Story of Your Life, but I did read a similar story by the same author that dealt very deeply with the problems with the human memory and recall system and the philosophical and psychological ramifications technology (like writing) has when it confronts our faulty and biased recall systems. Given that reading, I’m excited to dig into the short story Arrival is based on to see exactly how Ted Chiang presents the concept of being able to perceive the future because of cognition changes triggered by language.

Einstein believed that the future was fixed and time is an illusion, and these notions are part of modern established thought about time. To understand what he meant, think of the fact that as you move through space, time changes. Time in another place is relative to other objects, and the present itself is different for any two people. If there are two people walking in opposite directions, the events happening in the Andromeda Galaxy, about 2.5 million light years away from Earth, would be vastly different relative to the two different positions of those people. In other words, if there was some way to receive text messages from that galaxy (which is in itself impossible,) one person would receive a text message about the “future” in that galaxy, a future that is fixed, and cannot be changed no matter what because its already been experienced. The person who received this information could give it to the other human, who could then tell the future to her alien on the line, but the alien would be essentially powerless to change the outcome.

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My layperson problems with the science of the film are really besides the point because fiction exists in a world beyond our own. Fiction is a lie about the truth and isn’t beholden to the limitations we have. Perceiving time differently maybe isn’t even most unlikely scenario in Arrival, that award could go to the arrival of these benign, possibly even benevolent aliens, whose intelligence is honestly very similar to our own and wish us no harm. Their written language is complicated, but not indecipherable, and they treat us rather patiently. They aren’t panicked or angry, and see very clearly the importance of cooperation. This insight about working together of course, is born, from their precognition. They know what will happen, and much like Amy Adam’s Dr. Banks once she figures out her new “gift,” they are merely going through the motions to carry out the plan has it has been predestined.

This knowledge of the future seems to brings peace to both the aliens and Dr. Banks, even to the point where she’s cool with going through the grief of having a child she know will die and early death. She even loses her husband along the way. All of it still seems rawly unnecessarily, but especially the part about family breakdown. There is something programmed in my heart to want to change a negative event if I know I can. It seems terrifying, but I can understand still wanting to have a child you know will die because you have these “future memories” of them, but she gains knowledge that telling her husband that she knows about the child’s future death will cause him to not only leave her, but distance himself from the child. “Daddy doesn’t look at me the same way anymore,” the doomed little girl tells her mother. That’s the part I would want to change, preventing that.

That’s what this movie is about for me: not aliens, not language, not the realities of predestination, but the questions of how we confront what we know about ourselves, and how do we make choices in this quivering now based on whatever it is we think we “know” about our futures and our pasts.

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  • JR Penn

    Great article, Lynn. You described exactly my issue with the film. While otherwise an exciting and interesting story, the idea that language can shape one’s perception enough to literally see the future seems to be stretching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis way too far. For a movie that is otherwise well-thought out, this is a flimsy premise, and as it is so important to the core of the film, unfortunately keeps this from being a great movie (but it is still a good one).

  • Stuart King

    Despite the plot holes, this thought-provoking film was a success.

  • SebasTián Andrés

    excellent film tho … the girl is ultimately a egolatric bith, who does not care about the guy feellings