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Arrival Review, Part 3

Investigating the meaning of time and language

Last time, we finally got to the big twist. Louise has not been having flashbacks of her deceased daughter, but rather, she’s seeing her daughter who is going to die slowly in the future. After dropping this bombshell on the poor woman, the aliens send her back. Ian and Colonel Weber help her into a van while she’s still being bombarded with visions of future events and explain to her that China is on the move, and the Pentagon has ordered them to evacuate.

Louise knows she’s supposed to use these visions to stop China, and she eventually does, but before we get to that, we need to talk about this entire setup. First of all, there’s the idea that a language can help you see into the future because it teaches you to think non-linearly. It’s an interesting concept, but I have no idea how it’s supposed to work, and it’s a little jarring given how hard the movie tried to be more grounded than other sci-fi films. There are no lasers, no big battles, and I think one of the reasons — aside from tricking the audience into believing that Louise’s daughter is already dead — the writers chose to make Louise seem so depressed and nonchalant about an alien invasion is because they didn’t want to give the film any B-movie vibes.

To have this almost supernatural twist is a little weird. But I won’t say it’s bad. On the one hand, I like the idea of a supernatural component springing up in a relatively realistic world. On the other hand, this kind of ambiguous concept stands in direct contrast with the meticulous, detail-oriented route the movie takes when it comes to explaining how to translate a language from another planet. So, all I’ll say about this twist is that I have mixed emotions.

False Dichotomy

What I do have a problem with is the false dichotomy the movie tries to set up with Louise’s daughter. It’s a false dichotomy in the sense that it creates a fake moral question. Should Louise give birth to her daughter knowing the child is going to die? The problem is that if Louise knows the child is going to be sick, then presumably, she should also have cumulative knowledge about the disease from the first time she tried to fight the daughter’s illness. That would give her over a decade to study the disease further. I’m not saying she could save the child, I’m just saying that the way the problem is set up shifts the story from one of accepting fate to one of trying to save the child in the future. And this is where the writers mess up. They imply that the girl’s fate is decided, but the story itself necessitates that the future can be altered. If the aliens’ believed fate was sealed, they probably never would’ve shown up in the first place. Furthermore, in a scene we’ll discuss shortly, we see the future and present being altered simultaneously, which gets very confusing. So, the entire question of whether or not Louise did the right thing is completely negated because the plot requires the future to be malleable in order for the movie to work. Therefore, there is no moral conundrum because there is a chance, however small, that Louise’s daughter can be saved.

For another thing, the writers tell us that Ian and Louise get married, but Ian leaves her when she tells him that their daughter is going to die. In one of the visions, Louise explains that she told Ian a truth he wasn’t ready to hear, meaning that she’d told Ian after the child was born, and he became enraged and left. Well, what if she’d told Ian before the child was born? That would be two minds having over a decade to work on the problem. They might’ve found, if not a cure for the disease, a way to prevent their daughter from catching the disease before they even had the child. Given this possibility, the entire scenario falls apart.

To further illustrate the flexible nature of the future in this story, let’s look at how Louise prevents China from attacking the aliens. She returns to the base and finds a cellphone used by an agent working with the Pentagon. She calls General Shang and tells him his wife’s final words before she died.

Now, this next part is as fascinating as it is illogical. When Louise recounts the vision of meeting Shang eighteen months in the future, her future self doesn’t remember calling him. Shang has to tell Louise his wife’s last words in the vision, which she speaks back to him in the present. This convinces Shang to call off the attack on the aliens. Once he does, the ships leave.

Now, I have a hard time understanding how this could work in any time travel theory. We’re practically dealing with the Force! Neither present nor future Louise knows the wife’s last words, but Shang tells them to future Louise, which would require present Louise to know those words. And all of this completely ignores the fact that Shang probably would’ve assumed somebody was spying on him and his dying wife because he does, after all, live in China!

The Aliens Depart

This fortune-telling language is basically a magic system one could find in a fantasy series, which I might not have a problem with were it not for the fact that the whole moral conundrum rests on a fatalistic understanding of the future. I can’t tell how the present and future even interact in this movie!

Arrival ends with the aliens leaving. Ian and Louise embrace, and Louise decides to be with Ian despite her daughter’s fate because she believes her life with her child will still be worth it.

I liked that message personally, but I’m not a big fan of these types of moral questions, usually because there’s a third option no one is not supposed to consider. Such scenarios teach people to think in a box. But that’s not my main concern with this movie. It’s how the entire logic of the story falls apart in the third act. I won’t say this is a bad film. As I mentioned in the first review, the cinematography is amazing, the actors are wonderful, and the writers know how to communicate compelling dialogue. So, I’ll simply say that Arrival is a movie worth watching if you’re willing to not think about it too hard.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Arrival Review, Part 3