Upon first glance, Arrival looks to be about aliens. But while the fondly named Abbott and Costello do play an integral role in the movie, the story isn’t really about them. In fact, part of the point of their communication is that humanity's (and the viewer’s) focus shouldn’t be on them — it should be on Louise (Amy Adams), the linguist studying them. There are conversations to be had about the human condition and our responses to what we don’t understand, but what stands out the most about the film is Louise’s response to this complete mental shift.
Throughout Arrival, Louise is a contrast to the human response as a whole. Where most of the world seeks to attack, she seeks to understand, and where most would lose their minds if their sense of time shifted from linear to circular, she manages to take it in stride. The film brings attention to two factors that could explain Louise’s reaction.
The first is Linguistics Relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) asks Louise about after one of her episodes. Put simply, linguistics relativity is the theory that as you learn new languages or forms of communication, parts of your brain alter to change your perception. Outside of science fiction, the theory has practical use in things like cultural anthropology, a field that has a lot more place in a sci-fi film than you might anticipate — particularly one that has such a strong focus on humans and less on the aliens themselves.
The second potential factor could be Louise’s direct interaction with Abbott and Costello. While this explanation is less scientific, it would account for what makes Louise unique. We see that she’s literally written the book on the aliens’ language, but others’ perception of time doesn’t seem to shift the same way hers has. It would also explain why Ian, who went through all of the experiences she did save the direct contact, did not share her gift.
One of the many ways Arrival manages to be unique is that the viewer’s perception of time shifts alongside Louise’s. At the beginning of the film, we believe that we’re seeing the past. But as Louise’s perception shifts, we slowly start to see time non-linearly as she does. As she realizes that these visions aren’t a dream, we realize that these visions aren’t the past, and then something else remarkable happens: She chooses to do it all anyway.
Most humans avoid pain at all cost, particularly on the emotional spectrum. Some of us spend our whole lives dodging meaningful relationships because of the mere chance that they may end in devastation. But not Louise. She doesn’t pick and choose which portions of the pain she’ll accept. She takes it all.
She leaves the site with Ian, knowing that they will fall in love. It could have ended there. The two could have conceivably lived “happily ever after” if they’d decided not to have a child, but Louise chooses the experience of her daughter over the devastation that she will feel upon her death. Instead of telling Ian, she could have kept the knowledge of the disease and impending death to herself, but Louise chooses to tell him because he deserves to be able to prepare for this inevitability. Ian, taking the route that humans are better at, lashes out. He gets furious and then he leaves, highlighting further how much of an anomaly Louise is in contrast to the rest of humanity.
With the shift of Louise’s perception comes a sort of omnipotence. She’s not “all-knowing” in a traditional sense, but seeing time circularly instead of linearly means that she can see the future. Though it seems to take certain trigger words or moments to set her skill in motion, she knows infinitely more about time than most of humanity is able to grasp. When a human is granted this sort of power we often see them turn super villain in about thirty seconds flat, but Louise once again takes the unanticipated route.
When we meet up with her years later at the gala, she seems to still be living the same unassuming lifestyle. Her continued view of others as her equals is the only explanation for her telling Ian rather than allowing him to live in ignorance before their daughter’s death. And just like the aliens needed her to, she shares what knowledge she has with the rest of humanity in order for all to protect their home and others when the need arises.
Part of what makes Arrival fascinating is that just as our understanding of language and cultures varies, the response to the film has been just as diverse. That’s the nature of any film, obviously, but with a movie that focuses on human nature and response, that conversation becomes even more interesting. Neither Ian or Louise were wrong in their responses or their perceptions, but when we allow our perception to change, the discussion gets more involved.
Amelia Emberwing lives in Colorado and perceives time linearly.