Arrival – Accepting an Alien Gift, Learning from Experience


arrival-best Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in the film Arrival asks the question that appeared first in the award winning novel,  Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang (1998), which has been adapted for the silver screen by Eric Heisserer.

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” Would your answer be, as  it always should be, No?

Humanity can, with the hindsight of history, often seem as if it is balancing on a precipice at the edge of darkness, only turning to look forward towards the light when it suits them.

It can be much easier to bury our heads in the sand, give in to our fears, think the worst of someone else, or another country, than try to communicate well or to benefit from the challenge of doing so.

ARRIVALOur ancestors in antiquity understood the importance of the human senses: smell, hearing, taste, touch, sight, and the emotions they invoked. Above all, they valued the importance of stillness; … a freedom from the passions provoked by ill controlled senses.

They understood that wreaths of victory are not always bestowed upon the handsomest and strongest persons present. Those who act rightly are the winners. It is they who carry off the prizes and enjoy the good things of life.

arrival-10Connecting with and better understanding the challenges our ancestors faced without either the benefit of well-informed hindsight, or the huge advances in technology that we enjoy, should free us up and encourage us.

If we dismiss the idea we cannot learn from our mistakes or experiences through knowledge, because it was all just too long ago, then the only people we are kidding is ourselves.

An exchange of points of view and sharing of knowledge should be all about establishing trust and gaining respect; difference should not be difficult to embrace, but enlightening.


Time is something humans have been pursuing relentlessly since the seventeenth century, when the adoption of the Pendulum clock brought with it the ‘remorseless subjection of humanity to the clock’.

Northwestern Europe and England adopted a way of life that would form the basis for an expanding western tradition at a time when space first became a luxury for humanity.

What would have happened at that time if we had started thinking about both time and space in a very different way?

arrival-1Don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.

Ted Chiang’s reflection on personal choice is not about the cruelty of fate in action, but a powerful exercise in freewill. It is what liberty and freedom is meant to be all about and, in all circumstances.

Director Denis Villeneuve embraces Chiang’s concepts and incorporates them into a visually arresting thought provoking film about the importance of stillness for thinking before reacting instantly to a threat that just may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Arrival the movie based on Chiang’s story features Amy Adams as Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as mathematician and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, whom she meets when aliens suddenly arrive on earth in twelve gigantic ships.

They anchor in different places around the world, seeking to communicate with the people of earth, offering to help humanity by making a gift of their language, which they know humans will need in the future.


Louise and Ian have to learn the alien language as quickly as they can. It has an extremely complex structure to say the least and they find that visual transmission and using their senses are the way to go.

Ian calls their guests Abbott and Costello because a little levity is also required if they are both to survive the trauma and experience of trying to decipher and deal with an alien intelligence.

arrival-9Louise uses a giant pad to spell out her name and the aliens reciprocate by producing her name in their own language, which is revealed over the days to follow as having 100 shapes.

Each symbol is a spherical with added inky tendrils, which arranged in different formats define difference, expressing ideas without adhering to rules of syntax or sequence.

Production designer Patricia Vermette reportedly said, “We wanted to create a language, alien to our civilization, alien to our technology, alien to everything our mind knows”.

arrival-8The story is told going forward and back from the future to the past embracing the idea of non-linear time.

Before the Arrival we learn Louise has had a daughter, who contracts a rare form of cancer and dies during her childhood.

arrival-2By the end we realize this had taken place after the Arrival, with her fully knowing in advance she will lose both the child and man she loves.

Instead of putting her off the process, it serves to enhance Louise’s desire to enjoy learning from the experience, one she believes in the long term will make her a better person.

As human beings we are defined by our choices. Louise as presented by Amy Adams is a quiet thoughtful heroine, one used to embracing stillness as she finds the place where she wants to be in life, contributing to the evolution of human history. Hers is an outstanding performance.

I loved this movie and despite its 1 hour and 56 minute running time,  confess that I didn’t want it to end. The music too is defining after all sound is the first aspect of language we learn, the original score composed by German composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and available here.

arrival-6Jeremy Renner as Ian really has little to say, however he illuminates the screen through his smile with one truly marvelous encounter when he runs his hand over the space ship’s hull to feel the material it is made of.

The totally defining wonder he feels is transmitted silently and visually through joy. It points out how important it is that we are and remain in touch with all our senses when communicating with each other.

The aliens have already sensed how willing Louise is to learn, which is why they trust her to succeed. She is the one who understands how the message is to be read and relays it to General Shang (Tzi Ma) the leader of China, who is about to declare war on the aliens.

The Chinese officials have deciphered 1/12 of the message the aliens are providing and Louise now knows that around the world they have to join the messages together if they are to make complete sense of their alien gift.

It’s all about the art of communication and compromise and Louise commits treason to call the General on the phone, winning him over to her point of view by telling him his wife’s dying words.

She can do this because she is no longer restricted by earth’s concept of time and has the ability to fully see her future. She knows that overcoming cultural and communication differences is the key to success for humanity. After all, war only makes widows.


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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