Sunday, November 13, 2016

About Time: A Review of Arrival

I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months as the antidote to 2016’s largely disappointing summer movie season. Up until a few days ago I was also looking forward to seeing Arrival as a way to relax after having narrowly avoiding a Trump administration.  Looking backwards I’m happy to report that the first of these aspirations has been fully realized. The second … not so much.

I’ll have more to say about the election in another post, but for now let’s focus on a movie that I suspect might come to occupy a place on my list of all time favorite philosophical science fiction films.

Arrival is based on a novella by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Your Life,” which is a top pick on philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel’s collection of philosophers’ favorite science fiction (check out my contributions to this collection here). There are numerous minor differences between the novella and the film (for example, the aliens are called Flapper and Raspberry in the novella, but Abbott and Costello in the film). There are also a few major differences (the film loses some theoretical details about linguistics and physics but adds a lot of geopolitics and makes the aliens’ intentions slightly less mysterious).

Director Denis Villeneuve has headed a beautiful adaptation, from Bradford Young's striking cinematography to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unnervingly sublime score. Amy Adams portrays the quiet strength and struggle of the main character, Dr. Louise Banks. I think I speak for most of my fellow college professors when I say it’s great to see a college professor depicted in a movie as a full human being rather than a pompous jerk, an emotionless egghead, or the absent-minded comic relief.

Dr. Banks is teaching a class one day when the news of aliens’ arrival on Earth comes in (Arrival is probably the most realistic film depiction of First Contact since 1997's Contact). Later she gets a visit from a dour Army Colonel (Forest Whitaker) asking her to translate an audio file of the aliens’ speech. Of course, one can’t translate an entirely new language without interacting with the speakers, so Dr. Banks eventually meets the aliens. Things get exciting from there, but intellectually, not in an action movie kind of way (this is not Independence Day or even Star Trek Beyond). Eventually Dr. Banks learns that the aliens’ spoken and written language are entirely unrelated, and learning the written language radically alters her experience.

The Philosophy Report: Language, Time, and Life

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mentioned explicitly in the film, but not in the novella. This hypothesis unfortunately has nothing to do with Worf from Star Trek.  The basic idea is derived in somewhat tenuous ways from linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf: your language influences or determines the way you think about and experience the world (for more see this succinct explanation and this more complex treatment in the context of philosophy of linguistics).

In its weaker version, this hypothesis should be obvious to anyone who has learned more than one language. You can say and think some things in Spanish or Sanskrit that you can’t say or think in English or Estonian, and vice versa. In its stronger version, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might imply that your fundamental perception of reality is determined by the language you speak.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether Arrival relies on the weaker or stronger version. On one hand, Dr. Banks is able to experience time in a radically different way after learning the aliens’ written language; on the other hand, she and the aliens are able to understand one another to some extent, which many linguists and philosophers have argued would be impossible if the strongest versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true.

Arrival makes translation exciting! No, really! As in the novella, Dr. Banks tells a story of Europeans’ arrival in Australia. They pointed at a kangaroo and asked what it was. The aboriginal people reportedly said, “Kangaroo,” which actually meant, “What did you say?” Both novella and film admit that this story is probably not true, but it is instructive nonetheless.

I was reminded of the philosopher W.V.O. Quine’s work on the indeterminacy of translation. Quine imagines a similar scenario in which two groups meet for the first time. A rabbit hops by and one group says, “Gavagai.” The other group can’t be entirely sure whether “Gavagai” refers to rabbits, jumping, manifestation of rabbit-hood, undetached rabbit parts, etc.

One of the major plot points of Arrival relies on just such an indeterminacy (see also the title of my review!). I don’t want to spoil it, but if you see the movie, you’ll see what I mean!

The philosophy of time makes a big appearance in the film as well (see my discussion of these issues with regard to Terminator Genisys).   Is it true that only the present truly exists (a view called presentism), do the past and present exist (the view of possibilism), or do past, present, and future all exist equally (a view called eternalism or block time)?  

In my opinion the film and the novella really only make sense in light of the last view insofar as the narrative is constantly shifting between past, present, and future.  There must be some time in the big block that the narrative is shifting to!  While I suppose one could say the future depicted in the movie is merely one possible future, I would find that interpretation somewhat tortured, because it's hard to make sense of the aliens' experience with any theory of time other than eternalism.  

In real life I'm also intrigued by an argument from ancient Stoicism that statements about the future must be true or false, which only makes sense if the future is in some sense determined.  Last Monday it was just as true that Donald Trump was going to win the election on Tuesday as it was on Wednesday.  We just didn't know it yet.

Does this view undermine some people's cherished ideals of free will and the openness of the future?  Should it make us lazily acquiesce to our fate?  These issues lead to the next major philosophical issue and the core of the film.

Those with more enthusiasm for Nietzsche than I will probably say more, but the Eternal Recurrence is definitely one way to look at this.  See this review from Katherine Monk that specifically mentions Nietzsche.  While it may be possible Nietzsche meant this as a literal metaphysical thesis about time (every moment actually will occur again eternally), it definitely functions as a thought experiment: imagine you had to live your life over - every heartache, every defeat, every victory, all the suffering and joy of your life, would you choose to live your life again?

Another take on this issue comes from Buddhism.  According to legend, the Buddha left his life of princely magnificence upon coming to understand the fate of all human beings and our primary causes of suffering: birth, old age, sickness, and death.  Buddhists traditionally believe in rebirth, which means that you have lived and will live a nearly infinite number of lifetimes.  While the Shirley Maclaine types in the West think rebirth is a good thing, it's supposed to be terrible: you have to experience birth, sickness, old age, and death again and again.  Even worse, you have to repeat high school again!  Buddhists typically use such reflections as a way to motivate one to embark on the path to the elimination of suffering and thus the elimination of rebirth.

I don't want to give any major spoilers, but in Arrival Dr. Banks is forced into a situation where she knows the future and must choose to live it even containing as it does precisely the kind of suffering that Buddhists predict.  While none of us can see the future to this extent, we all know - as much as we like to deny it - that we will experience the suffering of sickness, old age, and death, both for our loved ones and ourselves.  But most of us choose to go on regardless.  Thus, Dr. Banks perfectly dramatizes the human condition.

My own position on this issue is less angsty and heroic than Nietzsche's and less of a rejection of the world than the traditional Buddhist answer.  While a lot of Nietzscheans will see Arrival as an affirmation of the love of fate (amor fati) in light of the Eternal Recurrence, the mood of the film is far too melancholy for that in my opinion  (see this post for my distinction between melancholy and pessimism).  Our heroine is too quiet and morose to be a proper Über Mensch (or Über Frau as the case may be). Dr. Banks is strong in her own way, but not in the bombastic, shaking-her-fist-at-the-universe kind of way popular among Nietzscheans (oddly, Nietzsche himself may have been closer to her temperament in real life).

My own position is perhaps closest the ancient Indian Cārvāka school.  They reportedly criticized the Buddhists and others for their rejection of life with a metaphor.  Hating life because it contains some suffering, they said, is like refusing to eat a fish because you have to remove the scales and bones: you lose the good in your rejection of the bad.  

While Buddhists, Stoics, and others give us worthwhile tools for lessening suffering in this life, I don't think suffering can be entirely eliminated.  I also don't think suffering is always ennobling; it frequently destroys people with no lessons to be learned.  I don't care if it makes me stronger.  I would eliminate suffering if I could, but I don't deny that it has made me who I am.

So would I live my life again or the life that Dr. Banks sees in the film?  I suppose I would, but I would do so with her quiet mixture of melancholy and joy rather than the bombastic angst of Nietzsche or the denialism of traditional Buddhism.

After a year that has so far been painful in numerous ways, it’s about time we had an intelligent science fiction movie worth celebrating, especially one about time, language, and what aliens might teach us about being human.


  1. Love the cinematography and the cast, but ... I wonder why she could save the world and not her child or marriage? Is one 'time trick' possible and the other not? Does it mean that some events are predetermined and others aren't? Or does it mean that even in nonlinear 4D spacetime there are limitations? Hmm, the last time I checked, the Multiverse offers us endless solutions and endless timelines with zero paradoxes! Dr. Michio Kaku calls it 'Physics of the Impossible' (2008). Besides, there is more than that: Omniverse! See The Illusion of Time at and Imagining 10 Dumentions at - Thanks!

    1. Thanks for the comment. That's a good question! I think the idea is that in the case of the world-saving move (which I don't want to spoil for anyone!) involves another person who has maybe also been affected by the aliens in the same way she has. So they can interact. The other things, however, are not the kinds of things you can change with communication. Some things just happen.

      Also, the deeper point, at least if I'm understanding the story correctly, is that time is a block that already includes the world-saving and the bad stuff. There are no alternate time lines. Multiverse theories are cool, but that's just not what's happening in this story. Precisely the opposite, in fact. This is more clearly addressed in the novella, where it's discussed that for the aliens all language is performative like "I now pronounce you husband and wife." They already know what's going to happen, but they speak and act nonetheless. That's the whole point of both the novella and the movie, although the novella doesn't have any of the world saving stuff.

      So the thematic answer to your question is that if they could jump to other universes or whatever, the entire rationale and philosophical underpinning of the story would be ruined. At least that's the way I read it.

  2. Here's my review of the novella on which Arrival is based:

  3. [Lovely review by the way!]

    Hi Ethan, from your explanation - "time is a block that already includes the world-saving and the bad stuff. There are no alternate time lines", isn't it deterministic? Or am I being pessimistic?

    I don't think Dr. Banks has a choice at all, unless we think that the aliens were wrong about their understanding of the future and / or time. This is highly unlikely given that they are a highly advanced species.

    I see Dr. Banks' future actions as a sort of resignation to fate, as if she is muttering 'I gotta do what I gotta do' at every step, even if she knows the future.

    I am somehow reminded of Krishna's advice to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra - "I am the killer and I am the killed. All of this was ordained. Just partake in your dharma (duty) as a kshatriya (warrior clan)" I am paraphrasing ofcourse! :P

    1. Thanks, Raghunath!

      I admit I'm not up on the latest philosophy of time literature, so I'm not sure if block time is necessarily a deterministic theory.

      (Mild spoilers ahead)

      I do think, however, that some kind of determinism is required for Arrival to make any sense. Some viewers seem to think it's about changing the future, but that to me misses the point, since it's about knowing and accepting the future.

      Whether Dr. Banks has a choice depends on what you mean by a choice. From a metaphysical libertarian point of view, which requires two or more distinct possible futures, then maybe not. But from a compatibilist point of view, where a free choice is merely one that is unconstrained and from your character, then her choice is as free as can be even though she is perceiving time in a very different way than humans normally do. To me that's a big part of what's so cool about the movie. Trying to read it in terms of possible futures makes no sense of the movie in my opinion.

      I love your Gītā reference! I think that's a good one. In this case what's "ordained" is a new way of perceiving time, which I suppose Krishna would have, too.

  4. "Nietzscheans will see Arrival as an affirmation of the love of fate (amor fati) in light of the Eternal Recurrence, the mood of the film is far too melancholy for that in my opinion "

    I don't agree with you. Louise's personality never seems especially exuberant, but she is clearly at her happiest when she affirms her choice to marry Ian and have her daughter.

    As to Nietzsche and melancholy, you are aware of the photo portrait of Nietzsche in the classic Durer "melancholy" pose, and its relation to Ficino and the Renaissance tradition of associating Saturn and the melancholy humor with genius? I am guessing not, given that you are at least honest enough to admit an anti-Nietzsche bias, although your bizarre straw-man caricature of Nietzscheans doesn't correspond to any that I know.

    Affirming life over and over again with joy, as Nietzsche advocates, has nothing to do with "bombastic angst", by the way. So, I am curious: Is Nietzsche's philosophy angsty, melancholy, or anti-melancholic, or is it however you want to (mis) characterize it to suit whatever point you are trying to make at the moment?

    "to me misses the point, since it's about knowing and accepting the future."

    Not entirely. Otherwise, why don't the aliens accept their future passively, instead of coming to Earth and offering humans a gift as quid pro quo for assistance 3,000 years later? At any rate, the screenwriter has in interviews made very clear that he parts company with Chiang's story in this respect.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Upon watching the movie a second time, I have somewhat reevaluated my opinion. I think you can make a Nietzschean case given Dr. Banks's reaction, although I still have a few reservations about doing so (more on that below).

      As for my "bizarre straw-man caricature," I never claimed to be an expert in Nietzsche. Maybe you are. I apologize. I did admit that the man himself seems to have been quite melancholic, although I do think we have miscommunicated to some extent on what it means to be "melancholy." To characterize someone as complex as Nietzsche is difficult, but my own experience with his work is best summed up by a comment I once read (I can't remember where): One notices not just Nietzsche's style, but the excess of it.

      While I have some criticisms of Nietzsche's ideas, a lot of my antipathy is about his style. It's just a bit too much for my tastes, but I fully admit this is a matter of philosophical taste more than anything. I do think Nietzsche was a philosophical genius who provided some worthwhile critiques, but I'm a bit perplexed by the enthusiasm of some Nietzscheans who treat his texts almost as revealed scriptures (which seems weirdly against his wishes in any case). I have met plenty of people like that, although it's possible I misinterpreted them (as, I suspect, we may have misinterpreted each other here).

      As for the last point, I think it's pretty clearly possible to read both the novella and the film as relying on a sort of compatibilist insight that the aliens and Dr. Banks can both know the future and still act to create that future. This is an odd insight, but it's one that's not really different from Niezsche's whole point with the eternal recurrence, at least in the way some people read it. My critique is more that Arrival/Story of Your Life is emotionally perhaps more like a Stoic or Buddhist acceptance than a Nietzschean one. The different is not so much in content, but in emotional timbre. I probably can't fully explain what I mean in a blog comment. I normally don't talk about Nietzsche too much (he gets more than enough attention from others), but this story seemed to require it.

  5. Do you see any reference of Derrida, Wittgestein, Heidegger or Lacan in this Movie? greetings.

    1. Thanks for your question! I didn't notice any specific references to those figures, but I'm sure since they each had a lot to say about language there could be connections with a movie that focuses on language. For Wittgenstein, for example, the concepts of language games and forms of life could easily come into play.