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Why I Had A Metaphysical Crisis While Watching Arrival

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Photo: Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Paramount.
Warning: This story contains major spoilers about Arrival.

I don't usually burst into tears at the end of alien movies. So when my eyes started to well up during the credits of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's beautiful film about the struggle to communicate with extraterrestrial life when 12 alien "shells" — or UFOs — suddenly arrive on Earth, I knew something was up.

The film tells the story of Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams), a linguist working at an unnamed university. She's recruited by the government to help decode the basics of the alien language in order to find out why they've come to Earth. To help her with this daunting task, her handler, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) brings in Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who can provide mathematical insight into the process of communication. Not exactly your typical action heroes.
That's because Arrival isn't exactly your typical alien movie — it's so much better than that. This is a movie about how language actually influences the way you think and live your life, something I have some personal experience with.

I grew up in Montreal. French was my first language, one I spoke exclusively until I was about 3 or 4, at which point I learned English. If you know anything at all about Montreal, you'll know that language is kind of a big deal there. (Big deal in like a "let's potentially separate from Canada to have our own identity" kind of way.) Quebec-born Denis Villeneuve, who directed Arrival, gets that. This movie is proof.

In Arrival, Louise's interactions with the aliens — or, Heptapods, as they're dubbed — lead to a change in the way she thinks. Not just a shift in perspective, but a physical change in how her thoughts are processed, all based on language. The film begins with the story of Louise's daughter, who dies tragically young after being diagnosed with an extremely rare disease. We follow Louise through her grief as she experiences a series of flashbacks throughout the film, about her daughter's early life and their relationship. As Louise absorbs the Heptapods' language, her thoughts about her daughter become more and more vivid.
To understand this, one has to understand the alien language. About halfway into the movie, we find out that Heptapods write the end of a sentence at the same time as they write the beginning — on paper, the words appear as a calligraphic semicircle. They write from both ends, towards the middle. This all leads to the big reveal of the movie: Louise's flashbacks aren't flashbacks. They're visions of a future she can have — if she chooses to let it happen. She's in the middle of the loop, and the end is in sight. If she chooses love with this hot, nerdy version of Jeremy Renner, and the child that they bring into the world, she's also choosing to eventually lose it all. The downside is that, only she knows what's at stake. Language, here, is ironically one-sided. She can understand the aliens and kind of respond, but can't find the words to explain what's going on to her fellow scientists.
As someone who speaks two languages on a daily basis — even if it's just to myself — I've often felt that parts of my personality can only be expressed in one or the other. For example, when I get mad, it all comes out in French. (It's a much better language for cursing, merde!) Pop culture, especially anything Kardashian-related, gets the English treatment. Anything I learned before college, like math or history — all French. Dreams are divided in a similar way: Anything emotional or absurd is en francais; work-related nightmares are in English.

I'm funnier in French. I also like to believe that I can sing on key in French, if not in English. (A fact my friends have vehemently denied, but whatever.) Some people have Monday brain. I have Frenglish brain.

Story of Your Life, the short story by Ted Chiang on which Arrival is based, is about this very idea. In linguistics, it's known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or as Chiang puts it in the film's production notes "the idea that the language you speak determines how you perceive the world and even what kinds of thoughts you can have." Translation (yes, a linguistics pun — forgive me): If you speak English, your brain interprets things a certain way. If you start speaking an alien language, your brain might start to flashback to the death of your daughter who hasn't been born yet.

This film isn't perfect — the international crisis caused by the aliens' arrival is a little too on the nose, as is Louise's last minute save-the-day interaction with the Chinese foreign minister. But the big reveal totally got me. In these days of constant spoilers and Reddit threads, it's rare to get a true "aha" moment anymore. Maybe that's why at the end of the nearly two-hour run time, I felt almost woozy, as if I'd just had an extreme brain workout.

I left the theatre feeling as though I had been truly understood — no small feat for a film about tentacled extraterrestrial blobs.
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