A Lacanian look at Arrival (2016)

(WARNING: this blog article contains book and film spoilers)

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a 2016 adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’ which was originally published in Starlight 2 in 1998. It has been hailed as one of 2016’s most successful flicks, earning a host of awards and more than a fair few near misses including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. The story follows Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), an esteemed linguist who, along with physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is called upon by the Colonel of the US army (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish some kind of dialogue with a colossal alien ship, one of twelve which each hover in the airspace of major continents across the globe. Like the short story it is based on, the film intermittently flits between the events following the appearance of the mysterious alien ships and the fragmentary ‘flashbacks’ which we initially assume to recall Louise’s troubled past. Our first sighting of one of the alien ships comes around twenty minutes in, and it is without doubt one of the most breathtaking shots of the film: the camera glides high above acres of open grassland draped in mist, steadily approaching the ship which towers above the landscape like an ovoid monolith of some ancient god, creating an awesome sense of scale. Johann Johannsson’s (with a hint of Max Richter) accompanying score is ingenious: a haunting and unearthly marriage of aboriginal tribe music and the echoing deep-sea calls of blue whales (which, by no coincidence, is reminiscent of sounds that the aliens themselves audibly communicate with) which generates an overriding sense of great age and natural power.

This musical element is part of a crucial collective imagery within Arrival which I’d argue is completely absent within the book, this being the sense of distancing from technology on the part of the aliens, to the point where their technology is almost completely neutered; this as a means to emphasise that their power emanates from their otherworldly command over the natural earthly landscape itself. This is a significant and poignant difference from that of Chiang’s story in which the aliens are still wholly reliant upon technology in that they communicate through giant televisual screens (known as ‘looking glasses’ which act as proxies between Earth and their ships in outer space) and similarly rely on technology to transmit their ‘written’ language (by inserting their forelimbs into a translatory device). In Arrival however, the alien ships seem quasi-organic, and their language is transmitted through no external tools or tech, but rather through the secretion of a natural ink which they are able to shape and manipulate in the low-gravity, pelagic viewing chambers of their ship (which presumably echoes their planetary environment). This mastery over or rather harmony with the natural landscape is further emphasised through the repeated allusion to Zen Buddhist theology: the ships mimic upright Zen stones, and the aliens’ inky form of language echoes Buddhist enso symbols which is both a spiritual practise and a form of minimalist art (in the story Chiang poetically describes the Heptapod’s written language as ‘like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice’ [Chiang, p. 135], similarly drawing on a unification of nature and art). But the marine imagery is also highly pertinent: the ships mirror smoothed pebbles as if washed ashore from the deep, and the mist (particularly in the first glimpse shot) about the ships symbolically echoes the shape of ocean waves, like some specter of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

This is most overtly demonstrated through the aliens’ physiognomy within the film which is very different to that of the story in which Chiang very purposely skirts detailed description (Louise at one point describes them vaguely as ‘a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs’). Known as Heptapods, the aliens are a mottley collage of marine anatomy – blending elements of giant squid and octopi, whales, manatee and starfish – which evokes a crucial binary between the ‘known unknown’ of the deep sea, an assimilation of that which is at once Other and incomprehensible, and that which is ‘above water’, the known, logical and comprehensible man-made landscape. As aforementioned, the sound of the aliens’ speech solidifies this dichotomy, in that it replicates blue whales in order to identify a form of communication at once recognisable and familiar, but entirely beyond our understanding. What this persistent binary therefore serves is to make the natural earthly landscape alien, and to elicit, in a classic Wellsian sense – much like the tripods buried deep underground for thousands of years – the aliens are already here, all around us, and they act as the manifestation of an oceanic ‘Real’ (following Lacan), of a reality which, whilst within reach, lies outside of our comprehension, and more importantly, submerged deep beneath the Symbolic order of language. We thus have this process whereby the alien anatomy performs an ‘Imaginary’ function, in that they are formed of recognisable, natural, native fragments originating from the Other. The deeper comment here then is that the alien as Imaginary construct represents a paradoxical resurfacing of the repressed Real. By extorting the deep sea as Other the truly alien Real becomes tangible, this bolstered in so far as the deep sea embodies perhaps the closest humanity has to the truly alien unknown (outside imaginative speculation), and furthermore through the simultaneous metaphorical movement towards a less developed, primordial state: the deep sea becomes identifiable with our biological past, an amniotic return to our pre-evolved and universal form of existence.

We might also view the film as a progressive movement towards the Lacanian Symbolic. At the beginning of the film we are greeted with a pertinently estranging viewerly stasis, in which we are limited to the reactions of the characters and the early stages of societal collapse as they witness the alien ships for the first time on their own screens. We, however, are kept in the dark, looking out at the awestruck onlookers from the eye of the screen (this perhaps a prophetic glimpse at Louise’s eventual cognitive transition – more on that momentarily). This scene represents the moment of birth into the void of the Real: we look out from the eye of the screen, assuming the position of the alien observers who look on the space of the Real, that is, human reality which is as yet, beyond linguistic Symbolisation. The secondary stage, that is the Imaginary or ‘mirror stage’, would therefore be the aforementioned alien assimilation of self which is emblematically enacted through the Heptapods’ physical mirroring of the deep sea Other. But the final stage, the reality subsuming Symbolic, is where things get tricky. We might then view the persistence of the deep sea, the marine mimesis, as expressive of an inability to move beyond the Imaginary, and as such, a Symbolic insufficiency. This is made clear through humanity’s futile ongoing attempts to decipher the alien language. As the film progresses, and as the alien language becomes more and more subjected to Symbolic systemisation, hostility festers, and soon enough declarations of war are sounded from various continents who are unable to determine the aliens’ benevolent intent. This Symbolic degeneration is metaphorically enacted in the scene in which the screens representing the global continents blink out one by one, this again demonstrating the screen as embodiment of the ensuing Real.

Louise however, has her own agenda, and soon deduces that the Heptapods’ ‘written’ language (also known as ‘Heptapod B’) is completely detached from their spoken, audible language (known as ‘Heptapod A’) as opposed to written and spoken human languages which are inherently entwined. As such for the Heptapods thought and communicative speech are entirely distinct. This in turn leads her onto the staggering discovery, and the central plot twist, that the Heptapods’ written language is atemporal, this demonstrated through the circular formation of their language exposing a perception of reality situated outside of temporal restraints. The Heptapods therefore occupy a reality in which past, present and future exist simultaneously, and, upon learning their language, Louise similarly becomes able to perceive reality outside temporality. In the story Chiang explains that ‘when the ancestors of humans and Heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness [perceptions parsed differently]… humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness whilst Heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness… [they] don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons… their actions coincide with history’s events… their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology… [and] knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will’ (Chiang, pp. 162-163). Borgesian influence suffuses Chiang’s stories (at one point within the story he openly alludes to The Book of Ages when describing the paradoxicality of the aliens’ alternate mode of consciousness) and this playful, labyrinthine veil of infallibility by way of what we might call the ‘theoretical ruse’ is central to his authorial hermeneutic. Chiang repeatedly draws upon hard scientific principles and mathematical formulas and reapplies them abstractedly within his stories: for example with Fermat’s Principle when applied to the field of linguistics in ‘Story Of Your Life’; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity in Arrival; and a similar play on Euler’s equation in ‘Division by Zero’.

What is ingeniously adapted within Arrival is Louise’s revelatory coalition of the two alternate modes of consciousness, which is performatively enacted through the film’s structuralisation. The climactic revelation then is that the ‘flashbacks’ we have been seeing throughout the film – which depict a small child growing into early adulthood before the onset of a fatal illness – are in fact ‘flashforwards’ to Louise’s future with her child by Ian Donnelly (we also learn that Ian later leaves Louise due to her disguised knowledge of their child’s early death). Thus the skewed temporal linearity of the film itself parallels Louise’s cognitive ‘rewiring’ following her acquisition of the alien language. But what it also successfully demonstrates is their fundamental incompatibility: this revelation therefore creates the chronology. The sequential consciousness (of the humans) neutralises the simultaneous mode of consciousness (of the aliens), which was unwittingly bestowed on us from the offset in that the events of past and future were merged. In summary Arrival manages to deftly weave some deeply philosophical questions about both language and our perception of time, whilst also approaching deeply human questions of empathy, morality and the frailty and ephemerality of existence. This is rare and exquisite gem of a film which is at once thought provoking and moving, it is Hollywood SF stripped of pomp, and I for one, am itching for more.



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