WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
“A leash of thin black whips, like the arms of an octopus, flashed across the sunset and was immediately withdrawn, and afterwards a thin rod rose up, joint by joint, bearing at its apex a circular disk that spun with a wobbling motion. … Then I saw some cabmen and others had walked boldly into the sand pits, and heard the clatter of hoofs and the grind of wheels. … And then, within thirty yards of the pit, advancing from the direction of Horsell, I noted a little black knot of men, the foremost of whom was waving a white flag.”
–H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1897)
The scenario of the movie Arrival, released a little over a month ago, is the scenario that as a teen UFOlogist I expected might happen any day. Except that, deep down, I knew it really wouldn’t.
Twelve UFOs make their appearance at twelve different spots over the globe, hovering just above the ground and apparently doing nothing but hover. The one we see looks sometimes like an egg, sometimes like an egg sliced in half, standing on end. TV newscasters dub these things “the shells.” No one has any idea what they’re doing here and what they want from us. Their silent, unmoving presence puts the world on edge.
Financial markets tank. Cities break out in riots. Right-wing talk show pundits rant about our useless government’s inactivity in the face of the alien threat. The film’s hero, linguistics professor Louise Banks, comes to her classroom to deliver a lecture on the unique properties of the Portuguese language, only to find most of her students absent and those who’ve shown up glued to their smartphones watching the news.
Arrival and its star Amy Adams (who plays Banks) have been showered with accolades, most of them deserved. My purpose is not to add to them, but to explore the movie’s themes, particularly those that are not evident on the surface, and to see what they have to teach us about the unconscious content of the UFO phenomenon. Which, in my opinion, is quite a lot.
However, as I discovered to my dismay after writing the first draft of this post, I seem to have understood the movie’s action differently from just about everyone else, or at least everyone who’s published on the Internet. Have I managed to see what all the others have missed, or the other way around? You’ll have to judge that. You’ll also have to decide whether, if I’m wrong, that discredits the implications I think Arrival has for the real-world UFO.
As the story develops, Banks–a polyglot genius fluent in just about every language on the planet–is pressed into service by the military and flown off to Montana, the spot in the US where one of the shells has landed. Along with physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), she’s tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the visitors. She and Donnelly are in much the same position as the white-flag delegation in The War of the Worlds 120 years ago. (“Since the Martians were evidently, in spite of their repulsive forms, intelligent creatures, it had been resolved to show them, by approaching them with signals, that we too were intelligent.”)
The white-flaggers in The War of the Worlds accomplished nothing except to get themselves fried by heat-ray. H.G. Wells’s Martians had no interest in interspecies communication; their agenda consisted of taking our planet for themselves and using us as their food supply. Eight decades later, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) envisioned the use of musical patterns to communicate with extraterrestrials who turn out to be entirely benign, wizened but cuddly child-like creatures with outsized heads and huge eyes that seemed to be continually blinking, emphasizing their basic humanness. It’s always struck me that it was a mistake for Spielberg to have actually shown us the aliens. How much more interesting it would have been to give us ETs that are truly alien, so utterly unlike us in appearance that they can’t be shown on the screen, yet are moral creatures filled with the milk of (non-)human kindness! (But then maybe Close Encounters wouldn’t have grossed the $337 million that it did.)
The aliens of the “shells,” when we get to see them, aren’t little or cute or cuddly. They’re a throwback to Wells’s Martians, elephantine octopi standing erect on their seven (not eight) legs, which earns them the designation “heptapods.” They communicate by lifting one leg and shooting out of its tip an organ that looks like a seven-armed starfish and has the effect of a spider suddenly jumping out at you. You want to jump back and scream. But that organ discharges smoke, and the smoke forms itself into rings, and the irregularities of those rings are vehicles of meaning.
So are they here to enlighten us or to eat us? Banks’ and Donnelly’s efforts to find out, and in the meantime to keep trigger-happy earthlings—the Chinese, followed by Russia, Pakistan and the Sudan (and make what you will of this coalition)—from starting a real war of the worlds, are the stuff of an intelligent S-F thriller. And so far, what I’ve seen in the movie is what anyone else would see.
But there’s a lot more to Arrival than this, evident in the fact that the film’s opening scenes have, at least on the surface, nothing to do with the coming of the aliens.
“Memory’s a strange thing,” Banks muses in the very first line of the film. The scenes that follow are her memories–or at least so they appear–of the great tragedy of her life. Her daughter Hannah has died, apparently on the cusp of adolescence, of some rare disease that’s never defined. Keening her child, freshly dead in her hospital bed, she begs the girl to come back, knowing that she never can. (Or can she?) We’re put on notice: her daughter’s death is not a bit of incidental pathos, but something vital to the film’s meaning.
Again and again, as the story of the “shells” unfolds, scenes from Hannah’s short life are woven in. Contemplating the irregularities of the aliens’ smoke rings, Banks envisions Hannah with a caterpillar. As she looks at the “shell,” images of her daughter flood her mind. As she puts her hand to the invisible barrier that separates her from the heptapods, she imagines taking the dying girl’s hand. Of course (we think) these are memories, triggered by Banks’s current experience with the aliens.
Even Hannah’s name, it appears, is significant. It’s a palindrome; you can read it either forward or backward and it will stay the same. The smoke rings by which the heptapods communicate, without beginning or end, are graphic evocations of the same idea. And here the movie pushes into its most essential, and dubious, idea.
It’s this: the aliens come bringing us the gift of their language, which shapes their reality. In this alternate reality–natural to them, accessible to us–time is non-linear. Awareness of the future, therefore, is a natural function of sentient beings, them and us alike.
A clever notion, profound or silly, depending on the way you assume the universe is likely to work. Taking it seriously makes it possible to read the movie’s ending the way most critics have. Banks’s “memories” of her daughter are in fact precognitions. Hannah’s life, her death, the end of Banks’s marriage–these play themselves out, not prior to the aliens’ visit to Earth as we first assume, but afterward.
Banks seems to allude to this in a voice-over near the end of the movie. “So, Hannah, this is where your story begins, the day they departed.”
Understood this way, the film becomes emotionally incoherent. The nexus of the alien presence with the child’s death is emptied of meaning. So I beg leave to maintain a simpler understanding of the movie, the one we’ve assumed from the start. The visions of Hannah are indeed, as the opening line seems to announce, Banks’s memories. The “arrival” of the aliens functions, in Banks’s psyche, as a response to the loss of her child.
I don’t question what the movie slowly reveals: Donnelly is Hannah’s father. But does it follow that Hannah’s birth is an event of the future? Only if we assume that he and Banks are meeting in Montana for the first time, as strangers. But there’s another way to read their interactions: that they’re the estranged parents of a child already dead, compelled by circumstances to work together and able to do this only by acting with each other as if they have no shared, tragic past.
The film’s final exchange, then, will not be the beginning of a new relationship but a reconciliation. He: “Want to make a baby?” She: “Yeah.”
Say the critics: “Louise foresees that Ian will be the father of her daughter, him asking her if she wants to make a baby. This is Hannah, who isn’t born yet. She already knows that she will agree, wanting to share a short time with her future child despite knowing that it is destined to die, and that Ian will leave her when he discovers her foreknowledge” (Wikipedia).
But this scenario seems very strained. “Want to make a baby?” is a peculiar way to invite a new girlfriend to bed. It makes better sense as expressing a more ordinary way by which parents can pretend their dead child can be resurrected. They go ahead and “make” another one.
Hannah’s story “begins” at this point, in that through the new birth the illusion is maintained that she’s here once more, that time is a circle. Like the new foliage of spring, those we lose can come back to us after all.
Which takes us straight to the theme that binds together the movie’s seemingly unrelated elements, the child’s death and the aliens’ “arrival.” (Let’s not forget that a baby’s birth can be called an “arrival,” and that the movie’s “arrival” takes place within giant eggs, which, egg-like, are “shells.”)
Is that theme birth? Death? Or, fusing the two, rebirth–the finality of death and how it can be circumvented. Provided you’re willing to buy into the notion–which the movie seems to advocate, which for me is wistful fantasy–that language trumps reality. That by adopting a new mode of linguistic expression you can alter the physical world.
The aliens are the dead, returning in strange and horrifying form but with benevolent intent. And if you don’t believe that the issue of death is fundamental to Arrival, ask yourself as you watch the movie: what is it that Banks tells Chinese General Shang at the film’s climax to persuade him, successfully, to call off his planned attack on the “shells”?
This feeds nicely into what I’ve been saying for some time, that the most essential theme of the real-world UFO myth (forgive the paradox) is that ultimate alien, death.
It’s the heart of the Roswell story: the death of the gods who’ve come from the sky, yet who turn out to be not only mortal but also child-like (as in Close Encounters), their heads huge, their bodies frail and spindly.
In the hundreds of thousands of letters that Whitley Strieber received from his fellow-experiencers after the publication of his 1987 book Communion, about which I blogged four weeks ago, Strieber’s wife Anne noticed early on that death was a recurring element. The final chapter of Whitley and Anne’s The Communion Letters (1997), appropriately titled “The Dead,” opens with an epigraph from the New Testament, Mark 9:10: “And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising of the dead should mean.”
“These next group of letters illustrate one of the most powerful and important aspects of the close-encounter experience. This is its connection with ghosts and the dead. One of the most moving experiences I have ever had involved a desperate fax from a man whose young son had just had an encounter with his dead older brother, who had appeared in the bedroom surrounded by visitors [that is, UFO aliens] and said that he was all right. …
“So what does a thing like this mean? Why would aliens appear in the context of ghosts and apparitions? Probably, because they are not aliens in the simple, conventional manner that is usually assumed … that the world of the dead is very close to that of the living, and that it either uses the alien form as a disguise, or is connected to alien life in ways that we are not.
“In any case, I believe that these stories and all the others like them are right at the heart of the mystery: If we could understand the visitor experience, I have no doubt that we would also understand ourselves, our true history, the meaning of death, and the destiny of the soul.”
Mark 9:10: “And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising of the dead should mean.” If I had to sum up my understanding of the deep content of the movie Arrival in a single sentence, I couldn’t do much better.
by David Halperin
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