Since I saw the film ‘Arrival’ a couple months ago, I can’t get it out of my head. It is changing the way I think, much in the same way that the protagonist’s worldview changes as she learns the language of the aliens she is studying.
The film outlines both the possibility for and the necessity of international and intergalactic cooperation, as well as introducing a new orientation to time that is nonlinear. The effect for me was an illuminating remembrance of our universal interconnectivity. As the aliens proclaim in the film: “There is no time. Many become one.”
I’ve been so moved by the idea of spiritual unification that the movie taught me, I’ve been trying to spread the good news. After speaking to many, I learned that most people who saw it didn’t fully understand the storyline. So before I start explaining why I think it’s so brilliant, please excuse a brief plot summary (spoiler alert)…
‘Arrival’ follows expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she works to understand the language and intentions of a species of aliens who have inexplicably descended earth. The aliens, dubbed Heptapods as their nearly featureless grey bodies are supported by seven spindly legs, write in circular logographs penned via a single squirt of buoyant ink from their tentacled palms. Over time Dr. Banks is able to translate that the Heptapods have come to earth to share a gift with humans. It is unclear in translation whether this gift is a ‘weapon’ or a ‘tool’.
Influenced by a particularly reactive Chinese Military General, world governments react to the message by declaring a global war against the Heptapods, in fear that the aliens are attempting to wipe out human civilization by gifting us weapons to use against one another. Dr. Banks is the only one who can stop imminent world destruction when she discovers that the gift from the Heptapods is their language itself, which when learned allows for a circular, nonlinear, simultaneous perception of time. The Heptapods explain, “We help humanity. In three thousand years, we need humanity help. Louise sees future. Weapon opens time.”
Realizing her newfound gift, Dr. Banks is able to receive information from Chinese General Shang in the future, which allows her to convince him in the present to stop the war. This time paradox is like a palindrome: it’s causality can be read both forward and backwards. The same is true of the Heptapod’s mission: they help us because later they need our help. The film itself plays like a palindrome, where the beginning and end of the story are the same, both arcing toward a meaty middle.
‘Arrival’ is one of the first blockbuster films to expand beyond linearity, duality and the dominant masculine paradigm of ‘us versus them’. I have been waiting a long time for this, longing for it with all my heart. I thought ‘Avatar’ might be going somewhere until the spiritual natives conclude the only way to stop the greedy military is to wage a war. Go figure.
There’s a popular maxim that the only way opposing forces will unify is to share a common enemy. This idea only exists within the dualistic masculine frame of competition and aggression. In ‘Arrival’, U.S. Colonel Webber (Forrest Whittaker) describes it perfectly: “I need to explain all of this to a room full of men who’s first and last question is, ‘How can this be used against us?’”. Most modern governments and forms of entertainment are oriented around a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses.
‘Arrival’ teaches us the brilliance of a non-zero-sum game, where everyone benefits by working together. It is one of the first major films brave enough to promote the feminine paradigm of inclusion. Everyone gets to matter. There are no good guys or bad guys. No one wins or loses.
I had a dream once that the halls of government were circular and drenched with natural golden light, with soft warm-colored walls and furniture. The rooms were round and sepia-toned like a womb. Because the architecture was feminine, the laws passed inside were human-centered and compassionate.
‘Arrival’ gave me the feeling that this is the beginning of a new age where we can be guided by circularity and inclusion to benefit all. In the film, Dr. Banks is selected for her mission over a male colleague because his definition of the Sanskrit word for war is “an argument” and hers is “a desire for more cows”. I believe the feminine wisdom of empathy is what will allow our species to expand both spiritually and galactically.
The linchpin of ‘Arrival’ is the message General Shang gives to Dr. Banks to pass on to his past self. It was his wife’s dying words, which were: “In war there are no winners, only widows.” The Heptapod’s gift of feminine circular wisdom reminds us of our unity.
After I saw the film, I got really excited remembering that another alien species—the beasts from the planet Ixchel in Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’—bore an uncanny resemblance to Heptapods both physically and emotionally. The book follows a young female protagonist through interdimensional space travel, where she meets a benevolent race of dull grey animal-like creatures who stand upright “taller than any man” with several limbs, and have tentacled hands through which they communicate. Just as in ‘Arrival’ these beasts are beacons of interplanetary cooperation and unconditional love.
When I was in the fourth grade, I would read and re-read the sections about these beasts under the covers, feeling inexplicably close to them. I felt a homesickness, a longing to be with them. I couldn’t make sense of this feeling until I saw ‘Arrival’, because I feel the exact same way about the Heptapods. These strange creatures give me the feeling of home, not in the earthbound sense, but as a daughter of a benevolent universe.
This made me think of another story with a female protagonist who pioneers peaceful connection with intergalactic beings—Jodi Foster’s character in the 1997 film ‘Contact’. In the movie the aliens say to her, “You’re such an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
I know this will sound crazy, and I can assure you I have no fascination with alien lore or conspiracy theories, but I sincerely wonder if it’s possible whether these stories—‘Arrival’, ‘Contact’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time’—may actually be the first points of contact with intergalactic species. It seems entirely plausible to me that intelligent life from other regions of the universe may be able to influence our art telepathically, so as to gradually and gently insert themselves into our awareness. The alien in ‘Contact’ explains, “This was just a first step. In time you’ll take another. This is the way it’s been done for billions of years. Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”
Whether beamed from a distant star or merely dreamed up on this cosmic orb we call Earth, the gift the Heptapods in ‘Arrival’ have come to give humanity is a potential paradigm shift toward nondualism, away from the ‘us versus them’ mentality with which our world, as majestically mirrored by our current president, is currently infected. I believe that with the right kind of thinking, we have the capacity for a collective spiritual awakening where we can wake up as individual parts of one underlying intelligence and begin embracing one another as sacred parts of the whole. Thank you ‘Arrival’ for your masterful reminder: “There is no time. Many become one.”