Arrival is a mixture of art-house and aliens. Remarkably, there are few differences between them as Denis Villeneuve’s weaves meaning into the simple and somewhat abstract plot. Rather than being a glitch-y and incomprehensive as a regular alien movie, it is simpler. Explosions are rare, the extraterrestrials are not evil incarnates. Nothing like any alien film ever made. Here is where many people go wrong. It is nothing like any alien film ever made.
Arrival starts with the beginning of a series of interactions between the human race and certain octopus-like aliens who arrive seemingly out of nowhere, randomly. Our protagonist is a linguistic professor and together with a physicist, they help to communicate and understand the language spoken by these aliens. They communicate by circular patterns, which like our language, symbolizes a different word.
For the first half of The Arrival, they have trouble understanding it, then, interestingly in one of the scenes, far into the film they figure it out by teaching them Mahjong, that is a Chinese puzzle game. This is the crux of the film. In the movie Banks mentions some parts of the game related to ‘honor’, ‘suit’ and ‘flowers’.
But that is how the Chinese figure it out, not the Americans. But it is the only way to communicate with them. They reach out to the aliens first and decide to provoke them. Here is an interesting revelation I had:
What most people missed out was the fact that the message to the film was that apart from honor, that love can either be used as a weapon or a gift, that is, a suit or a flower.
Weber says in the movie: ‘It was an honor working with you’ and ‘other countries will follow suit’ to the physicist who doesn’t understand that using logic to figure things out wouldn’t always work and the linguist who figures that life is a non-zero-sum game. Just like everybody wins in a non-zero sum game, Donnelly thought the arrival would end badly. But Banks figures it out that in life everything is balanced, that is it is, in fact, a non-zero sum game.
It could also be said that the meaning of this might be that once we give up our honor (why the countries were fighting together to further their own interests. Think of the Chinese leader), we are left with only love (what sprung up between Donnelly and Banks when they started working together and understanding their language), or unity, as a species.
When Banks is talking to the Chinese Dictator she is able to seemingly recall what his dead wife had said when she is put under crosshairs of their own country acting out of honor to protect the American people. She is able to convey the message to him that there was something that he loved that is in the past is still alive. He drops the attack immediately. She is able to recall it because she already knew it. I thought this because even we don’t know what she said, and it hardly matters. Banks also already knew what was going to happen to her daughter but she chose to give birth to a child that was going to die. She knew that everything the aliens said was true.
She is also able to foresee the starting of her daughter’s life and also its end and also the relationship with Donnelly get destroyed, but she is still intent on doing what she knew because it was the right thing to do for humanity or to protect humanity’s unity.
We can look for hints to corroborate this theory:
1. The aliens talk in terms of loops that don’t mean anything remotely close to any language on Earth. This represents the infinite nature of humanity as a whole. They never really translated using any actual terms. They never found any conclusive proof to any of the words they felt. They had to feel the same things that the aliens were feeling.
2. The movie has a beginning that is also the end. This makes the narrative a repetition of what was stated before. The only difference was the story of Banks. The aliens had no effect on anybody. They just came and went, leaving only Banks as the only one they communicated effectively with.
3. As the movie progresses Banks seems cold and unloving towards her own mother when talking to her. She does not empathize with her mother because she doesn’t know the mentioned cause for the aliens to be there yet. She knows it when she has her own child.
4. When Banks challenges another linguist’s capabilities after Weber refuses to recruit Banks, she tells him to ask what the Sanskrit translation of war is. He gives the wrong answer, showing that she has more knowledge of war.
5. In an explanation given by Donnelly, he questions whether they are tourists or scientists? Or we can also paraphrase this as are they someone who doesn’t know the native language and have come peacefully or are they here to observe what we do while we observe them? This brings out the contrast between the core beliefs of the physicist Donnelly and the linguist Banks.
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The message is that despite knowing what is the beginning or the ending of life, it is what in the middle that matters. We cannot live thinking we are going to die and we cannot die without living. Up until the aliens come three thousand years later.