WARNING: This article will contain huge spoilers about the alien contact film Arrival. Anyone who hasn’t seen it yet should skip what lies ahead….
What set Arrival apart from other sci-fi films about the First Contact scenario had to do with it’s ending, which upended the meaning of much of the film. Throughout Arrival, there were numerous flashbacks regarding the linguist Louise Banks and her young daughter Hannah. We witness Hannah being born, living her young life and dying from a disease. This was done to set up Louise as a tragic figure, but we learn late into the film that these sequences are actually flashforwards. We were actually seeing what happened to Louise Banks after the aliens (heptapods) left Earth.
So why were we seeing these glimpses into the future?
It all goes back to her attempts to communicate with the heptapods. The only way human and alien were able to communicate was through written language. The aliens’ language, which consists of a series of circular inkblots, was quite complex and to understand it, one had to think non-linear. This is because the heptapods do not perceive time as cause and effect like we do…they can see into the past and future. It’s why they came to Earth in the first place. As they reveal to Louise, they arrived to establish relations with us because the heptapods will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future. They had the foresight to see that they would need our help and we needed a jumpstart. Hence, their gift to us in the form of their language.
With the language, a person will be able to perceive time in a non-linear way. This will have a profound effect on how we carry on our lives if we are able to accurately perceive the future. But is this possible?
In the film, it’s mentioned that in order to understand a language, the wiring of one’s brain, so to speak, has to be radically altered. Imagine if that happened when deciphering a language from a completely non-human species. But for humanity to completely understand the heptapods’ language, our minds would have to evolve. So how was Louise able to perceive time differently?
The answer is that she was altered by the heptapod, Costello, when she was brought into the aliens’ ship. It’s established in Arrival that the aliens inhabit an environment that isn’t Earthlike and do not even breath our air. Whenever human and alien communicated there was a glass barrier separating the two environments. However, when the situation turned dire in the final act as the Chinese military was about to attack the heptapods, Louise was brought into the aliens’ environment without an environmental suit. She couldn’t have survived in the inhospitable environment and the only way she could have existed was if they altered her physiology during the transit to their ship. Minutes after she meets Costello face to face she is able to fully see into the future and understands their written language without the aid of computer programs.
That is the true tragedy in Arrival’s ending. While Louise is able to prevent a war thanks to taking advantage of being able to perceive time differently, now she has the terrible foreknowledge of her doomed daughter. She is fully aware that she will give birth to daughter that will die at a young age. This brings up the question of predestination and fate. During Arrival’s ending, she could have made the choice to not let Hannah be born to spare her the suffering.
Instead, she gives in to fate and allows herself to love her colleague Ian Donnelly, the mysterious never-seen father of Hannah in the flashforwards. Thus, she sets forth her predestiny and Hannah’s, as well. Why do this? Why not use her ability to find a way to cure Hannah? Perhaps, she was afraid of the Butterfly Effect unraveling the initial contact with the heptapods that could have doomed humanity. It is strongly hinted in the film, that this was why Louise and Ian broke up. This just adds more to the tragic element. Louise knows the pain that awaits her, yet she makes the personal sacrifice for the sake of preserving the future and humanity and in doing so, Louise Banks becomes an even more heroic figure in Arrival.
Lewis T. Grove