By Dr. Sam Rader,
‘Arrival’ is the modern Kubrickian science fiction blockbuster directed by Canadian prodigy Denis Villeneuve that has received eight Academy Award nominations for 2017, including Best Picture and Best Director. I hope it wins them all.
In my opinion, ‘Arrival’ is much more than just a great movie. In fact, I believe it could be the most important piece of art made in my lifetime.
If we are willing students, ‘Arrival’ is attempting to teach us a new way of life. The film outlines both the possibility for and the necessity of international andintergalactic cooperation, and introduces human beings to a nonlinear orientation in time. Both are powerful reminders of our universal interconnectivity and serve as signposts toward a collective spiritual awakening…a remembrance of our temporal and existential unity. As the aliens proclaim in the film: “There is no time. Many become one.”
The film begins with flashbacks of protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tenderly holding her newborn daughter. We soon learn that in present time, Dr. Banks is being pursued by the U.S. Military for her linguistic expertise, in an attempt to establish communication with a species of aliens who have inexplicably descended on earth. The aliens, dubbed Heptapods as their nearly featureless grey bodies are supported by seven spindly legs, occupy oblong primitive stone spacecrafts which hover a few dozen feet above the ground in twelve seemingly random locations around the globe.
Dr. Banks and theoretical physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) spend several months attempting to decipher the language and intentions of the Heptapods through a glass window in their stone spaceship, while linguists and physicists around the world do the same. As might be expected, all world governments are urgently suspicious of invasion and/or warmongering. The aliens eventually transmit that they have come to earth to share a gift with humans. It is unclear in translation whether this gift is a ‘weapon’ or a ‘tool’.
The message from the Heptapods is perplexing, but even more so is the language in which it is conveyed. Heptapods write in circular logographs penned via a single squirt of buoyant ink from their tentacled palms. As Dr. Banks works tirelessly to understand the aliens, she is haunted by vivid intrusive memories of her daughter’s rich childhood ending in an untimely death from a rare disease around the age of thirteen.
Tension mounts as most world governments, influenced by a particularly reactive Military General in China, conclude that the aliens are attempting to wipe out human civilization by gifting weapons to be used against one another. Convinced of their malicious intentions, General Shang aims to lead a global war against the aliens. While he is poised to strike, Dr. Banks makes her way behind the ship’s glass barrier into a dense misty atmosphere where the Heptapods explain that the gift of their language is a circular, nonlinear, simultaneous perception of time. They finally share their true intentions: “We help humanity. In three thousand years, we need humanity help. Louise sees future. Weapon opens time.” It is only then Dr. Banks understands that her recent vivid daydreams of a daughter are not some psychotic intrusion, but rather a glance at her future life.
While struggling to integrate this devastating truth, Dr. Banks knows she is the only one who can put to use the real gift the Heptapods are offering humanity: the technology of nonlinear time and nondualism. As she runs to inform the military that they are making a grave mistake and can abandon war and work together for all to prevail, she is hit with a memory of her future, where at a gala of international dignitaries, General Shang thanks her for single-handedly preventing world destruction. He relays his personal cell phone number and the last words of his late wife, reminding Dr. Banks that was how she was able to call and convince him to stop the war. As her future memory floods in, Dr. Banks contacts General Shang in the present, just in the nick of time to close the loop.
In the nonlinear experience of time she has acquired along with the Heptapod language, Dr. Banks has seen a future in which her pubescent daughter dies in her arms; a future in which her husband leaves her when their daughter is 4 years old, because he is so disturbed in learning their fate. At the conclusion of the film Louise Banks realizes it’s Gary Donnelly who is her future husband, who will love her deeply then leave her to a life of loss and loneliness. Knowing all this, she chooses to live every second of the life that’s coming. It is far from a perfect path, and it is her path, so she embraces it with an aching, yet open heart.
‘Arrival’ plays like a palindrome. Louise’s lonely past in her house by the water is indistinguishable from her future after her daughter Hannah (another palindrome) dies. The beginning and end of her story are the same, both arcing toward a meaty middle. The film itself traces a circle, like the Heptapods’ logographs.
There are several time paradoxes in the film, such as when the future General Shang gives Louise the information she needs to impact himself in the past. Time paradoxes reverse causality, and thus call into question the split of cause and effect. Like a palindrome, the causality in a time paradox can be read both forward and backward. The same is true of the Heptapod’s mission: they help us because they need our help.
In order for a time paradox to exist, time itself must be simultaneous as well as sequential. Ted Chiang’s novella ‘Story of Your Life’, the work that ‘Arrival’ was based on, explains this using Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. We all know that water bends light beams so that light’s course is never straight between point A and point B, if point A is in air and point B is in water. Fermat discovered that the bent light path is actually the course that takes the shortest time for light to reach its destination. In Chiang’s words this means “the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in.” Fermat’s principle reverses causality and hints at the nonlinear nature of time.
The language of the Heptapods is written nonlinearly in a single blast of smoky ink, and when learned, allows for a nonlinear perception of time. In Chiang’s story, Dr. Banks says, “the semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas. I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable.”
Chiang writes, “When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently…Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all.”
‘Arrival’ is one of the first blockbuster films to expand beyond linearity, duality and the dominant masculine paradigm of ‘us versus them’. I have been waiting a long time for this, longing for it with all my heart. I thought ‘Avatar’ might be going somewhere until the spiritual natives conclude the only way to stop the greedy military is to wage a war. Go figure.
There’s a popular maxim that the only way opposing forces will unify is to share a common enemy. This idea only exists within the dualistic masculine frame of competition and aggression. In ‘Arrival’, U.S. Colonel Webber (Forrest Whittaker) describes it perfectly: “I need to explain all of this to a room full of men who’s first and last question is, ‘How can this be used against us?’”. Most modern governments and forms of entertainment are oriented around a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses.
‘Arrival’ teaches us the brilliance of a non-zero-sum game, where everyone benefits by working together. It is one of the first major films brave enough to promote the feminine paradigm of inclusion. Everyone gets to matter. There are no good guys or bad guys. No one wins or loses.
Here I’m using the terms feminine and masculine not to convey gender, but instead the raw archetypal energy of yin and yang, respectively. Masculine yang energy is exclusive, linear, rational and individualistic. Feminine yin energy is inclusive, circular, emotional and collective. All of us have both kinds of intelligence inside, and both are extremely valuable. Especially when in balance.
Our planet has been ruled by an unintegrated masculine framework that has all of us feeling separate and frightened. Even the feminist movement is based on an ‘us versus them’ role reversal—up with women, down with men. But I believe the new wave hipster feminists are right when they say: The future is female. My interpretation of this is that sentient beings can come together across species, genders, races, and solar systems to stop exploiting, blaming and fighting one another.
Besides ‘Arrival’ there are two other famous stories with female protagonists, which explore the idea of peaceful collaboration with beings from other planets. The first was Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, in which a girl named Meg embarks on a journey of interdimensional space travel to try to unite her family. One of the planets she visits is inhabited by beasts who uncannily resemble the Heptapods from ‘Arrival’—a benevolent race of dull grey animal-like creatures who stand upright “taller than any man” with several limbs, and have tentacled hands through which they communicate. Like the Heptapods, the beasts have no facial features except indentations where eyes might be, and their planet has a misty opaque atmosphere. Just as in ‘Arrival’ these beasts are beacons of interplanetary cooperation and unconditional love.
A similar trope was explored in Jodi Foster’s 1997 film ‘Contact’, based on a Carl Sagan novel, in which her character discovers a communication signal broadcast to earth from a distant star, which contains blueprints for a technology that allows for instant, long-distance space travel. Foster’s character is propelled through ‘worm holes’ across galaxies to a distant civilization where an alien converses with her, saying “You’re such an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
I think the reason these three stories have female protagonists is because it is raw feminine archetypal energy—the energy of inclusion and circularity—that will allow us to bridge the gap of universality. In ‘Arrival’, Dr. Banks is selected for the mission over a male colleague because his definition of the Sanskrit word for war is “an argument” and hers is “a desire for more cows”. The feminine wisdom of empathy is what will allow our species to expand spiritually and galactically.
The linchpin of ‘Arrival’ is General Shang’s wife’s dying words, which screenwriter Eric Heisserer has said he wished to include as subtitles, but ultimately didn’t make it into the film. From Chiang’s novella they were: “In war there are no winners, only widows.” The Heptapod’s gift of feminine circular wisdom reminds us that we are all one.
I wonder if it’s possible whether these stories—‘Arrival’, ‘Contact’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time’—actually are the first points of contact with intergalactic species. It seems entirely plausible that intelligent life from other regions of the universe may be able to influence our art telepathically, so as to gradually and gently insert themselves into our awareness. The alien in ‘Contact’ explains, “This was just a first step. In time you’ll take another. This is the way it’s been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”
‘Arrival’ introduces us to the idea that time may be nonlinear: an inclusive circle. This may also be true of space. There is a scientific theory gaining momentum now which explains that the universe may in fact be a hologram.
On earth, a hologram is a three-dimensional photograph achieved via laser-beam encoding. Besides the amazing 3-D images they create, with different perspectives seen from different angles, the most interesting part of a hologram is that every part of the film contains the whole. If you take a holographic image of a peach and cut the film in half, both fragments depict the entire peach. This is true no matter how infinitesimally small you cut the film. The whole is in every little part.
In 1982 at the University of Paris, particle physicist Alain Aspect discovered that electrons can communicate instantaneously across any span of space. If these electrons were beaming their communication spatially, this would violate Einstein’s law that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. London physicist David Bohm believes the reason the particles can talk instantly across vast distances is that they are in fact not separated by space . . . or rather that space is not what it seems. Bohm explains these seemingly separate particles are aspects of the same underlying holographic whole.
Bohm offers a thought experiment in which a person might watch two live video screens of a fish swimming in an aquarium, each broadcast from different angles. At first one would think the two fish on the screens were connected in some meaningful way and could influence each other’s behavior almost simultaneously, when in fact the fish are one.
The gift the Heptapods in ‘Arrival’ have come to give humanity is a potential paradigm shift toward nondualism, away from the ‘us versus them’ mentality with which our world, as majestically mirrored by our current president, is currently infected. With the right kind of thinking, we have the capacity to wake up as individual parts of one interconnected entity.
Individualists might see this as a violation of free will. Why give up our human right to choose and surrender to The Great All That Is? ‘Arrival’ illuminates the paradoxical palindrome of determinism in which Louise Banks’ free will is exercised not by resisting her fate but by choosing to embrace her life exactly the way she knows it will be. She lives toward her daughter’s death to savor every moment in between, much in the same way we adopt pets or buy fresh cut flowers. We can be individual players in the Play of All Plays without forgetting “There is no time. Many become one.”
About the author: Dr. Sam Rader is a holistic and analytically-oriented psychologist with a private practice in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. She specializes in helping her clients become more integrated and spiritually awake individuals, by assisting them in freeing themselves of outdated psychological defenses. Sam is passionate about honesty, self-awareness, positivity, touch, beauty, the psyche, anatomy, the cosmos, and cats. You can connect with her on her website.