“Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” reads Ian (Jeremy Renner).
He’s reading a passage from a book written by language expert, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the woman seated opposite him on the helicopter. They’ve both been whisked away by the American military in the dead of night to make contact with one of twelve shell-like alien ships that “landed” all across the earth. The world’s best minds are in a race to break the alien language barrier and communicate.
The alien language in Arrival is unlike anything on earth. First off, their written word is expressive like Jackson Pollack coffee rings on a white ether canvas. Second, nothing is linear; sentences neither begin nor end—everything’s circles. They have a concept of time, but they don’t cling to it as much as earth. For example, when one of their brethren dies, they don’t say that he died; they say he’s in the process of death. His rebirth is implicit.
Arrival’s plot hinges on the idea that when one truly immerses oneself in a new language, the language rewires the thought processes of their brain. They begin to think and dream in that language. So when Louise surrounds herself day in day out for seemingly months at a time her reality begins to shift. Within the confines of the film, her way of thinking evolves out of a field of linear time, and into one of eternity. Lofty, I know, but left me explain.
Arrival is a retelling of The cosmic egg; a mythology common to Greek Orphic, Egyptian, Finnish, Polynesian and Japanese cultures. In essence, an egg comes down from “the heavens” and rests in the sea, there it incubates for some time before it cracks open and life froths forth. Campbell made the metaphysical argument that it symbolized “The development of eternity into time, the breaking of one into two, and then many.” In most versions, the myth comes full circle in that “The many,” re-conjoin into the one.
In this case the cosmic egg is, well… the cosmic egg shaped thing that comes down from on high. It doesn’t split mankind into many—man has done a fine enough job of that already—but the fear of the “weapon” the aliens keep mentioning does at least split the many into the many more. All camps cut off communication with each other and the plight of humanity looks awful dark.
But the aforementioned weapon is nothing more than a communication breakdown. Perhaps they read Louise’s book, because the weapon they’re offering is the first one drawn in any conflict: Language. And not just any language, one that “Opens Time” and allows the speaker to experience memories they’ve yet to live, like when Louise remembers a private conversation with the leader of China that convinces him to withdraw from a weapons conflict with the aliens. Effectively, the gift of this language unites the manifold mankind into one. As soon as mankind’s competing egos dissolute, so too do the alien ships into the atmosphere.
On a personal level, the alien language open’s Louise’s mind to see life not as a finite outcome but a process. Its not that it lets her see the future, it just removes the notion of one—or a past, for that matter. She sees life as a process punctuated by moments like her yet-to-be-born daughter, ‘little nose’ running through her back yard, asking for help with homework, or dying from lymphatic cancer on a hospital bed. She can decide against the predetermined path, but she decides to embrace the tragedy along with the beauty. Rather than let her life be defined by fear, she decides to let it be defined by love, the universal language—and the apt title to Louise’s second book about the alien lingo. Visually, the film closes on almost the same shot it opens with, outlooking the lake behind her house, as the her the scientist—or father-to-be decide to become one as well.