Readers Write In #303: The art of Arrival

Posted on November 18, 2020

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(by Shiva Prasad)

Arrival opens with the camera slowly moving down, from the darkness of a ceiling to the brightness of a glass wall on a lake shore home. A silhouette of the dining table informs us, a couple probably drank wine and left midway. It feels like dawn. The blue hour. The transition from the night to day. The time when the sun is just below the horizon, just before the sun rises. Louise (Amy Adams) voices-over “I used to think this was the beginning of your story”.

Max Ritcher’s “On the Nature of Daylight” – plays as the background score. Something in that piece of music make me feel pain and tranquility, hope and melancholy, life and death, all in one single song. No wonder it exists in half a dozen movie soundtracks. It also feels circular, which for the life of me, with my extremely limited understanding of music theory, cannot rationalize why. But, isn’t that what true art is meant to do? Convey complex emotions and indulge you with feelings.

What follows is a montage of the lives of Louise and Hannah (her daughter). We have shots of new born baby Hannah, shot with a very shallow depth of field, rack focus and a hand held camera. Showing us only the things Louise remembers and feels important, at that moment. Just like our memories. Baby Hannah starts crying when a-someone (extremely out of focus) picks her up from Louise’s bed. Louise utters her first words to Hannah, as she gets her back – “Come back to me” – Hannah comes back to focus. The film making is deliciously masterful, but it is not the kind that proclaims genius with flamboyance.

We get snippets of their relationship over the years. Hannah hushes, I love you, when Louise tucks her into a bed as a toddler. She screams, I hate you, as a teenager. Then finally she is bald on her hospital bed. Hannah dies early of cancer. Louise’s cries somberly, as she repeats her last words to Hannah – “Come back to me”.

Louise then walks dejected, in a circular curved corridor and we follow her. The Editing transitions with the screen fading to black (which symbolizes an end or marks completion). It is the only time the transition is used in the movie. We are hardly 3 minutes into the movie now. Louise’s voice over goes, “But now I am not sure, I believe in beginnings and endings”.

The importance of all these film making choices in music, cinematography, production design, editing and screen writing (by Eric Heisserer), we will never fully appreciate, at least until the movie is over. Realistically, we will only appreciate, as we understand it with subsequent viewings. It is the kind of film making where these subtle choices have thoroughly thought out intentions, deeply rooted in emotional storytelling, which impacts our subconscious. It feels like an absolute privilege to be watching Denis Villeneuve using the cinematic language in its highest order.

At the onset of every true piece of art, we have an artist (or a group of them) trying to communicate their idea, their opinion, their feelings and their emotions. No matter the choice of form – be it music, be it literature, be it dance, be it painting – there is always an underlying intent for communication. Each of those forms come with their own set of advantages and limitations, when used individually. In cinema, we get to use all of these, along with editing (which is probably the only art form that developed uniquely for cinema). Cinema is a very powerful medium of storytelling, using emotions and empathy. But, there are scores of ways to mess it up. That’s why these choices are important, and when done right, that’s why they are outright inspiring.

But, every time we think of communication, we often limit ourselves to the language of the spoken word. That is the most ubiquitous and the most democratic tool for communication. As Ian (Theoretical Physicist, played by Jeremy Renner) reads an eloquent quote from Louise’s (Linguistics Professor) Book,  “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

Louise and Ian are flying with the United States Army to Montana, to one of the twelve Alien Spacecrafts, that are hovering in different locations around the world. Their job now, is to communicate and understand the Alien’s intentions, without giving up too much information about ourselves or our language. But, this isn’t any other Sci-Fi movie. This is the premise, that the makers have chosen to explore deeper questions about language, time, free will, the human condition, the politics of the world and the purpose of life. The movie is based on an equally fascinating and highly original novella by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”.

We experience the arrival of the aliens exactly as Louise experiences it. She is our gateway through which we are going to be seeing and viewing the aliens. She peeks curiously through the window of the helicopter as we move across a cloudy, clandestine, military controlled landscape. Above the clouds, we see a giant spacecraft hovering just above the earth.

It is egg shaped on one side and flat (or rather concave) on the other. Like a bump of a pregnant woman. The size of it looks intimating. Then the score starts, the music (by Jóhann Jóhannsson) feels both extra-terrestrial and humane, like a shot of adrenaline in a lullaby for an alien child. I sincerely admit, this description does zero justice to the emotion that the music garners. But, it is not the regular/thrilling/orchestral score that we are usually accustomed to. We are with Louise, we experience this mostly from her point of view and we feel like how she feels. Note the sound mixing on the helicopters, the suffocating feeling of Louise in a Hazmat suit.

We are slowly built up to the introduction of the aliens inside the spacecraft. They are separated by a giant glass barrier. The other side of the screen is usually fogged up. The aliens appear huge and intimidating. But we only see them partially. There is always a sense of intrigue, created by focus, clouds, fogs and plastic screens. The aliens come closer to the screen. They look mostly like a giant octopus but with 7 limbs. Even their limbs are separated to seven fingers. They are named Heptapods.

We take our time to get comfortable with them, as Louise does. This whole sequence has great shot division, angle of camera, juxtaposition in composition. All the departments of story telling again combine and contribute to the overall (that is literally true about the whole movie, so I better stop harping on it, otherwise this essay is going to be bigger than the novella) which not only intimidates us, but also makes us familiarize, humanize and empathize with the aliens. There are two of them, Ian names them Abbott and Costello.

The giant glass barrier is bright in white, inside a dark tunnel shaped room. This reminded me a lot about the cinema screens. Maybe it was an intentional metaphor or it is just my own interpretation. But, I have my reasons to believe it to be deliberate. The novella has a circular glass screen, which would make perfect sense given the reveal about circular written  language, and circles are the recurring (both visual and philosophical) theme of the movie. Later, there is also a shot of a camera lens reflecting the rectangular screen. More about this later.

The novella is a little heavy on physics, where Gary (Ian’s character in the novella, the last name stays the same as Donnelly though) goes in detail about Fermat’s principle and Variational principle. Fermat’s principle explains how the light takes the least time when traveling from point A to point B. In air, it is simple, light just has to travel in a straight line. But, if it has to encounter another medium in its path, like water, then light has to account for the change in path due to refraction (apparently Ants follow the same Fermat’s principle of least time to get from A to B depending on the different surfaces which affect their speed). Think of it like, Google Maps needs the destination to give you the quickest route, but that also means you have to know at the start point where your destination is. Light is capable of doing it all on its own. This is the first breakthrough Gary and his team have with the Heptapods, in the science front.

Bear with me for a moment here, the science is going to continue (I am just really really glad someone has read this far though, I ll try to be quick). The Heptapods don’t understand any of our basic algebra, geometry or even velocity. But, this Fermat principle with complicated calculus is the first they identify with. This is probably elementary and foundational for them, maybe this is how they think, and there lies their problem with understanding our basic science. Gary argues that Fermat’s principle, which is one of the many applications of variational principle, can be used to think and write most of our existing formulas of Physics. It is a way of thinking, rather than just an equation. The implications would mean, physics doesn’t care which direction Time goes. It acts in a way, where cause does not lead to effects. But rather in a way, where initial condition and final conditions are known. Nature’s role is just to either minimize or maximize it, only acting in the ways of extremes and nothing in between.

Now back to the context of the story. Louise finds the concept fascinating. This leads her to understand more about the Heptapods’ written language “Heptapod B” (their oral language is named Heptapod A). Their written language is circular, it is more like a visual logo (think emoticons), which doesn’t have an equivalent in speech. Which would also mean, the Heptapods already know the whole idea of what they are going to write, from the first word to the last. It is not directionally sequential like clockwise or anti-clockwise. They instantaneously know the whole thing that they are going to write, from start to finish. They know their last word, the same instant they know their first. Be it a sentence, be it a paragraph. Like they have their way around with time, like they understand and see the future. So, their written language is not just a form of communication, but much more like a performance, very much like our art.

In the movie, we get the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Wiki definition: is a principle claiming that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition, and thus people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language) from the linguist’s perspective. Louise gets really immersed in Heptapod B. She starts thinking and dreaming in Heptapod B. Anybody who is multilingual can sure attest to this fact. It almost feels like a tiny switch is flipped subconsciously. By multilingual, I mean not just the ones, who translates their original idea from their native tongue to others (Have a friend who lives in the USA and says expressions like, “He is taking and putting sand on his own head”, and wonders what is wrong with the Americans who don’t quite get it), but the ones who can think and have thought processes in two or more languages.

The movie does away with a whole lot of the physics explanations, and is only keen on keeping us emotionally attached with Louise. Don’t get me wrong, they haven’t done away with the physics, but only the expositions. Physics is rather built into the DNA of the film, though not explained like a lecture (like in other lesser Sci-Fi movies). In the movie, they hint at the Arrow of Time. Also, there is a version of “On the Nature of Daylight” called Entropy (Again Physics, again I’ll be quick). Wiki states, “Entropy is one of the few quantities in the physical sciences that require a particular direction for time, sometimes called an arrow of time”. Our understanding of it becomes a lot intuitive as we get it. Think of an egg, in its existing state, it is low in Entropy (its constituent particles are less random), but when broken the randomness increases. However hard we try to glue it, we cannot forge it back to its less random state before it is broken. Hence the arrow of time. The same applies with Big Bang, less random at the start, and after big bang the entropy grows and so it informs us the direction of time, the past and the future.

Ted Chiang in the novella, takes Physics to the philosophical context to explore, what exactly is free will, do we have it and if we do what can we do with it. The girl (has no name, Hannah’s novella counterpart, as the story is addressed to her and she remains in second person throughout) dies of a rock climbing accident. Louise could not do anything to stop it. The one who can see the future cannot have free will, the ones who don’t see the future could have free will, because nothing is really just cause and effect. It explores its central themes – What really matters the most even when facing the mortality of our own children, one of the toughest challenges a human mind can experience. What is important in life, what is the intent of life, what is the purpose of life, what relationships means to us, how finite is our memory and how limited is our consciousness.

There is a major difference thematically between the novella and the movie (There are a lot of minor logistical differences too, like any good adaptation needs to have). This is where the movie gets a whole lot more fascinating, as it chooses how to talk about the key themes of the original novella. Here Louise has free will. So it becomes a screen writing choice to make the reason of Hannah’s death a part of her DNA, not a cause and effect like a rock climbing accident which Louise could have prevented if she wanted to.

In a series of cherished and devastating segues we keep learning that Louise keeps getting these dreams. When the first three minutes played out, we thought Louise had a past and she moved on to her next phase of life (After the fade to black, we get a shot where Louise climbs up a stairs and moves across the frame). But, later in the movie she confesses to Ian, she doesn’t know who this child is. She isn’t sure who she is married to or why her husband left her.

The big reveal comes when the military officers decide to plug-off communication after they learn the intention of the Heptapods is to “Offer weapons”. China has already shut communication and threatens to start war, in a knee-jerk reaction following this information. Pakistan, Sudan and Russia follow suit. The USA is worried about China and it decides to cut communication with the rest of the countries as it might be used by other countries against them. The politics looks too close to comfort.

Ian figures the knowledge they got from the Heptapods are only one twelfth of the information. They would need to get together, with the rest of the countries to get the whole. But the countries and politicians are reluctant. Meanwhile some soldier blasts a bomb in the spaceship with no admonition from the seniors. Louise tells them she needs more time with the Heptapods to confirm what they really mean. She has a point, all these guys in the same room, talk in the same language, but they still don’t get across their ideas convincingly to each other. But they have become so sure of the fact that, two words is all they need to stop talking to the Heptapods, who have so far not threatened anything, not once suspiciously curious, but always more than willing to put in the effort to communicate with Humans. In simple terms, they gave no indication that Heptapods are a threat, but the military and politicians think otherwise. As Bob Dylan once sang famously, “the masters make the rules, For the wise men and the fools”.

The films also convinces us of the romance between Louise and Ian. There don’t have any explicit scenes that tell us this. There is one scene at dusk where they say both contemplate them being single, and acknowledge how they two are making each other’s lives easier at the job. It is the two of them against the rest. But the scene is not just about their job. It captures their vulnerability and intimacy so well. This is the scene that actually cements their relationship for us. Again, the shot division and the cinematography is sublime. But, I loved the moment where, Louis rushes to white board filled with physics equations and erases a part of the board, Ian squeaks, “No, No. Not the top”. It is not a moment of disrespect for the other’s work. But, she doesn’t stop to ask him permission either. They just know, together they accomplish bigger. There is a comfort in their relationship. They need each other. In the book, Gary wipes Louise’s white board, she sarcastically quips, “Don’t worry, I didn’t need any of that”. Then Gary proceeds to explain the Fermat principle which makes Louise breakthrough with her discovery about Heptapod B. This scene, both in the book and film, are not about them (the film didn’t even need Ian in that scene to accomplish its primary goal, but they walk into him), but they have their moments. There are moments like these, through the film, that contribute volumes to our understanding of their relationship.

Then, there is a beautiful moment (which is also a key moment in the novella), where Louise realizes and thinks of “non-zero-sum game”, when Ian tries to explain to military officials that both parties can benefit from this and not just one. There is a pod which reaches the ground from the spacecraft in Louise’s dream. This one is more cylindrical, but looks to be the same material as the spacecraft. Louise runs outside and sees the cylindrical pod appearing for her. We discover with her that the more she learns the language the more she is able to see the future too. The dreams are not dreams, they are her memories from the future.

We also learn subconsciously, recollection of memories from the future is much like recollection of memories from the past. The closer your memories are in emotion or time, the easier it is to retrieve it. Sometimes it is just the inability to stop thinking about what just happened (or in this case, will happen), Sometimes it is tangential feelings, sometimes words or events that link you to an emotion, sometimes it is a train of thoughts. It comes together so beautifully. Editing (by Joe Walker) is just phenomenal, watch this movie (not just once) to know why Editing is an art form, and not just a potato-chips tool to make things “crisp”. Louise is taken to the Spacecraft in the pod that was sent for her. This is the first time they are reaching out to a Human. So far they just hovered above the ground. The humans were forced to make the first contact, which we immediately did, out of curiosity or fear. This is also the first time they have broken the glass barrier (probably due to bombing too). We see the true size of the Heptapod, what we thought was the whole of them, is just the human equivalent of knee to toe.

There is just one of them. Louise asks where Abbott is. Costello replies something in Heptapod B. When I first watched the movie in the theaters, there were no subtitles to this. Then we cut to see Louise and how sorry she feels. She says, “I am sorry, We are sorry”. We get it. It is like the director is reaching out to us to understand it in the language of cinema. He has his own language to communicate with us and we have been trained well so far. This scene is pivotal, It is wonderful to see a director who is conscious of his supreme skill and brave enough in trusting the audience to get it.

In the rush of it all, I didn’t quite understand the deeper philosophical conundrum of this scene, in the first couple of viewings. If Abbott dies, then knowing about the Heptapods and their understanding of Time, they already knew about Abbott’s impending death earlier. But, they chose to do what they did for the benefit of their civilization, 3000 years from now. They accept that choice and live through it. It also influences how, when Louise chooses to do something similar for her child, we are forced to philosophize deeper in the same vein.

The film does away with the concept of having no free will, unlike the novella. If that was the case, it would be easier for us to accept the fatality of us not being in control. But, they do have free will. We have the scene where Louise tries to call the Chinese President and telling him his wife’s last words to him on her death bed in Mandarin (Again, no subtitles offered, but the screen writer in an interview swears funnily at the director for pushing him for months to get this line right and but choosing to not offer subtitle. It apparently means “There are no winners in war, only widows”). She influenced that decision to be made. Maybe that’s why in her memory of the future she is not in cognition of the event of calling him. She unifies the world using that phone call and makes the Chinese President take the right call. It is just that, they chose to do what they did, after they have come to a complete acceptance of what life is.  It is a chance to celebrate creation, a chance to influence and make meaningful impacts in the lives of others, while maximizing the potential of what life has in offer for us.

This movie to me is a true piece of art. It means a lot to me, in inspiring me to create art, to make meaningful communication with people. It is pure cinema, which has its own language that demands the audience to immerse ourselves, so it can communicate effectively to us.  Cinema is such a powerful medium that, when done right, can have intensely meaningful impact in the life of people. But now, cinema is mostly reduced to talkie infomercials. It has become a medium to take advantage of lazy readers. Like Ian says about the Aliens and Heptapod B, “Perhaps they view our form of writing as a wasted opportunity, passing up a second communications channel”. I vehemently concur to the analogy, Perhaps most of our cinema is a wasted opportunity and we are passing up a second communication channel. We can’t keep blaming the audience for this, we need to start making cinema with at least the intention of creating pure art. Then, when we trust the audience and hover it around, I am optimistic they will reach and make first contact.