In the Akkadian language, “Babel” means “gate of God.” The building of towers has long been a method of displaying greatness, but the concept of greatness is a tricky one to nail down, tied as it is to arrogance and audacity. “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language,” God says in Genesis 11:6. “Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” With a universal language, humanity built a tower and opened that gate of God. The Tower could be seen from miles away as a straight line pointed heavenward. Many depictions show a conical construction plan, allowing workers to haul stone up along an ever-narrowing perimeter as the Tower stretched up, away from the Earth. When viewed from directly above—from heaven, say, or outer space—the Tower of Babel would have resembled a circle. With that kind of cyclical, timeless worldview, hauling stone upwards in ever-narrowing circles as the scenery spins around them, did man catch a glimpse of providence? Genesis 11:4 says that humanity—following the Great Flood—built the Tower of Babel “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The building of a great city would have meant togetherness and cooperation, but what humans saw as a practicality God saw as an uncomfortable, even dangerous idea that needed confrontation. God confused the universal language of the humans, frustrating their progress, and the tribes of people were scattered across the earth. It was exactly as they had feared.
Images of lines and circles are everywhere in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016-Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker-starring film. A round dish sits at the center of a table runner. A light fixture hangs above a dining room table. The spinning blades of a helicopter. A telescope. A wristwatch. The film purports to have a circular structure itself, through the use of flashbacks and forwards, but subsequent viewings reveal it to be linear by way of a palindrome—a clever practicality used to support a concept. The plot points of the film’s structure are an easier place to begin, so let’s make our entry there.
The film opens with a series of vignettes detailing the birth, life, and early death of Hannah, the daughter of Louise Banks (Adams). This series closes with Louise walking down a long, curving hallway at the hospital, devastated by Hannah’s loss. We then come into the main events of the film: twelve enormous alien spacecraft resembling sloping half-ovals—a line and a circle at once —have landed all over the world, their intents unknown. An army colonel (Whitaker) enlists Louise, a linguistics professor, along with Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist, in order to communicate with the aliens inside. As the human team begins sowing the seeds of rapport with the huge, seven-limbed aliens (or “Heptapods” as they come to be known), Louise begins to experience a phenomenon based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; as she becomes more and more immersed in the Heptapods’ language, Louise begins to think like they do. If the controversial hypothesis is correct then the human brain can be rewired to experience reality differently. In a Sapir-Whorf world, language is not only a method of expression but a tool which shapes how the world is perceived.
If we take opposing views of how the two species communicate, human beings come up woefully lacking. Our language is necessarily linear; a straight line with a beginning, and a conclusion which must be followed in that order to be understood. The Heptapod’s language is circular with no definitive entry or exit point and no necessary direction of comprehension. Our language attempts to pin down concepts while theirs is conceptual by nature, conveying many different notions and emotions at once. Ours is the band that holds the watch on our wrist, while theirs is time itself.
The process of writing (in any human language) is fundamentally flawed as a method of communication. It requires each party—the writer and the reader—to agree on every part of the process, interpret and assess the completed statement and render judgement on it, all in an instant. Stephen King refers to the writer’s language as tools in a toolbox, kept readily available to be used as needed, and reminds us that every writer’s toolbox is different, depending on that writer’s experience. An experience-based method of communication cannot be universal, it’s subject to misinterpretation. It’s also one of the only tools in our toolbox. So we do the best we can with what we have. Communication is, with good intentions and a bit of luck, a non-zero-sum game. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
As Louise continues to make progress with the Heptapods, Abbott and Costello (so nicknamed by Ian after another linguistically challenged duo), she is flooded by vivid, emotional images of her daughter, Hannah. In these moments, the film appears to be an exploration of grief. Grief, after all, has a shape and that shape is—according to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross—a circle. Travelling through the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance brings a person on a cyclical journey through a period of turmoil and back to a state of balance. But time does not stop in a tragedy; if viewed in a three-dimensional model, the Kubler-Ross grief cycle comes to resemble a spiral more than a circle. A line and a circle combined.
What we eventually learn is that these visions of Hannah are not from the past, but from the future. As her brain becomes more accustomed to the Heptapods’ language, she can see things as they do, with a more fluid, “unstuck” perception of time. Louise’s disorientation stems from confusion rather than grief. She does not know this child who is dying, and she does not understand the swell of pain she feels. As she begins to wrap her head around the concept of a fully-visible lifespan, the film becomes less about grief and more about courage. She will marry. She will have a child. That child will die. Can she change that?
It’s my theory that Louise, armed with knowledge of the future, has the power to change her life’s path. Over the course of the film, the Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) is a major thorn in the side of peaceful communication with the Heptapods, attempting to teach them a language based on the game tiles in Mahjong. The problem with a game-based language is that there’s a winner and a loser, a dangerous prospect in any high-stakes situation. General Shang shuts down communication and cooperation with the international community and other countries follow suit until no one is talking to one another. Just as the tension is at its highest point, Louise has another vision of the future; she is at a party celebrating a peaceful treaty between the people of Earth and the Heptapods. General Shang approaches her and tells her that he was about to make a terrible mistake until she changed his mind with a phone call to his private number. “I don’t have your phone number,” she says. The General smiles knowingly and shows her his telephone. “Now you do,” he says. The vision ends and Louise, equipped with a direct line of communication to the General, makes a call.
Of all the things that hint at this particular theory, Louise’s earrings at the gala are perhaps the most telling. They resemble a nautilus, the sea creature whose shell grows outwards in a logarithmic spiral. This spiral occurs significantly in moments of change in our world, from the curve of clouds in a hurricane, to the arms of spiral galaxies like the Milky Way, to the approach of a hawk to its prey. These are moments of risk, upheaval, impermanence, possibly even death. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that the Tower card in a tarot deck also represents sudden, disruptive change.
If Louise is able to change her future, why then go through with the decision to have a child, knowing that child will die? Is it a cruelty to herself, her husband, to Hannah? Perhaps. But there is a moment that argues otherwise; in one of Louise’s visions, she and Hannah stand on the banks of a river. They are discussing why Louise and Ian got divorced. “I told him something he wasn’t ready to hear,” says Louise. “It had to do with a very rare disease. And it can’t be stopped. Kinda like you. With your drawings and poetry and everything that you share with the world.” Hannah smiles. “I’m unstoppable?” You will die one day. And the sharing of your life will have been worth the dying.
Arrival is not about death and grief. It’s much bigger than that. The film’s premiere in early November of 2016 coincided with some of the first snowfalls of the year, when the grey sky closes in and leaves turn brown and brittle. Whatever your political alignment, many felt that the election of November 2016 was a kind of death; a sudden, disruptive change, the implications of which are still being grappled with on a huge scale. Many felt they had been dealt the Tower card (and how appropriate, since much of the news cycle revolves around a certain Tower in New York City). The age of hope feels like it’s in its final days. So what do you do?
I don’t know if there is a God or life in outer space, but I do know that one of the most powerful people on this planet likes to spend his time ensconced at the top of a very tall tower. People like to joke about fleeing the country following the result of an election, but this self-scattering means nothing changes. When the creator of the universe sends the message that you’re getting too big for your boots, you might want to take it to heart. Not so when an elected official sees fit to place themselves above the ones who elected them. It behooves us on the ground to work together so that when the ones at the top look down, they see a concept that must be reckoned with.
You choose to go on living. Whatever the cost. You choose to keep living and keep making plans and keep fighting for the opportunity to one day tell a little girl that she’s unstoppable and have her believe you. It will be worth it to keep on living. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.