Dissecting Arrival: Heptapod for Dummies

Arrival brings an intelligence and a beauty that is often lacking from Science Fiction films, but do potential plot holes and contradictions prevent it from being one of the best? SPOILERS ABOUND!

Grant: First off, I loved this film.  It was so refreshing to get a contemplative alien film with a realistic depiction of how humanity might respond. For me, the masterful editing amplified the screenplay’s tension and emotion creating a stunning experience. Despite all the films positive qualities, I left the theater considering paradoxes and trying to answer lingering questions. I know Lauren had reservations about the lack of excitement, but what were your impressions Zac?

Zac: I wasn’t affected by the lack of excitement in the film, I enjoyed the film’s pacing, but was more concerned with my lack of emotional attachment to Louise’s ultimate decision to go ahead with having her child even though she knows all the heartache it is going to bring her and Ian. I guess, though, that does take us right to those paradoxes and questions you left contemplating.

The big question to ask, and I think this will help us get into both of our reservations with the film, was does Louise have a choice at the end? A lot of her revelations throughout the film come from her yet to be born daughter, Hannah, as she begins to see time the way the Heptapods do. I think this would imply that she has to have Hannah, or will have Hannah, no matter what or else she might not have been able to figure out the things that she did without it.

But, contrary to that, the Heptapods themselves have seem to have chosen to come to Earth after they have seen their future where humanity helps a few hundred years down the line. So I guess I am saying, there is a lot of chicken/egg time travel nonsense going on here. Which is fun, but we might need to dig into it a little further before we talk about anything else.

Were these the big questions you were asking, Grant, or were they other things lingering in your mind?

Grant: Immediately I was struggling with the concept that you touched on: is the future predetermined? It didn’t bother me for long, because the film gives us enough indications that despite being able to see the future, Heptapods and Amy Adams(es) are unable to change the future.

If the future could be changed then the Heptapods should have had perfect execution, similar to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Instead they fumble all initial attempts to teach the humans their gift. Most notably, Abbott could have easily avoided death process. If he could change the future he would avoid the bomb blast because he would know there is no need to sacrifice himself. Also, if Amy Adams could change the future, she could have delayed conception by one day or one hour and had a child with a different genetic code, and most likely without an unstoppable disease.  

The concept that all our actions are predetermined is frustrating for those of us that believe in free will, however, the film argues that there is beauty in the concept. Think back to the last time you saw a loved one before they passed away, wouldn’t it be nice to know it would be the last time you would see them? It would provide an opportunity to fully appreciate the person and not take seemingly mundane interactions for granted. We are often betrayed by our belief that our relationships are eternal. But if you knew your child would not live past 12, then you would probably have a heightened appreciation for the years you had together.

It definitely sparked a difficult conversation with my wife. In the end we settled on the classic “Tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all.” I suppose one of the reasons that the Heptapods consider the language a “gift” is because knowing the future could help you appreciate the present.

Zac: This is a wonderful reading of the film. Myself not having children and you do, this was the original reason why I wanted to get your perspective. That said, the rationale that you could appreciate every minute even more is a great way to look at things. And I would consider it a gift if I had no choice in the matter. But if I had a choice, I’m not sure I would have made the same decision Louise made.

This makes me think about the logistics of knowing Heptapod and how one could even function in a mental state like this. Is it something we can call on? How is one expected to not try and change their supposed future if they don’t like the way it is going to play out? Does Heptapod account for any changes you might attempt to create before you know you are going to try to change them. Brain. Melting. l know we shouldn’t think about all of this that hard, but I think it is actually a really interesting premise to explore; how would the world react if they were capable of knowing everything that is going to happen to them. We all can’t be expected to have the zen like acceptance needed to avoid mass hysteria, can we?

Also, I’m not ready to give up on the predestined vs. free will argument. The Heptapods came to Earth because they are going to need their help in the future, isn’t it safe to assume they are there to try and make sure that process goes as smooth as possible by breaking down the language barrier? They see their future, see it doesn’t go as planned, try and change that by sending ambassadors to teach their language. Or, are they trying to save humanity so they can actually help them? In that case, then free will is possible right, because they must know humanity could, but doesn’t, help them and they are trying to make sure they show up when they are supposed to. I guess, since we don’t know what the important interaction down the line is we can’t really make a firm assessment, but, to me, it sure seems like the Heptapods are trying to change things.

Grant: As for controlling the ability to see the future, Louise doesn’t seem in control, but she is a novice at the language, so it is hard to know for sure.

I agree that most people on earth would probably try to resist their fate after learning Heptapod. However, the Heptapods seem confident that the language will help the humans. So maybe when someone learns the ability they also gain a perspective and an appreciation for their future. I don’t see the Heptapods as coming to earth to grease the skids, but instead to save humanity from destroying itself or at least give humanity the tools the thrive. If humanity developed a forward-looking perspective it could help bring about a more peaceful and altruistic world.

The Heptapods could know that they will need help in the future without using their foresight. 3,000 years is (probably) beyond their lifespan, so they probably can’t see that far into the future. It seems like they have some pretty advanced technology so they might be able to see a threat coming a long way off regardless of whether it is an exploding star, an intergalactic parasite, or an oncoming Cthulhu attack. Just because they are investing in humanity does not mean they are trying to fight against a predicted future. We try to improve our future all the time without knowing exactly what is coming. But are our efforts predetermined?

Should we talk about the major paradox?

Zac: I like where your head’s at on all of this, so yes, let’s get into those pesky paradoxes.

Grant: Louise foresees the General giving her his number and his wife’s dying words, so that she is able to convince him not to attack the Heptapods. But the paradox is that he wouldn’t have given her his number if she hadn’t called him. So it is a causal loop, similar to what we discussed in our Interstellar breakdown. The question is: does this paradox fit within the rules established by the language or is it a troublesome plot element?

Zac: Well, if we are attacking this from the basis that everything is fixed in time, then everything that’s going to happen, will happen, which means she can access a future where she succeeds because she was always going to, no paradox. I think it is also different than Interstellar in that McConaughey sends himself into the future, the Chinese General is the one giving the information this time, Louise is simply seeing that and applying it to the situation in her present. Yes, the general is only giving her this info because she called him, with the info he is giving her for the first time in the future, but again, I think it works with the mindset of a fixed history and future.

Grant: Basically, you are saying is that you believe these types of causal loops (I call them paradoxes) can occur in a universe with fixed timeline. It seems inconsistent to me, but we are dealing with a thinking process that wasn’t explained in a universe that wasn’t fully explored. So who the hell knows? Also it made for a great conclusion to the movie!

Speaking of the thinking process, I would have preferred it if Ian would have learned about his daughter’s premature death after mastering Heptapod himself, instead of being told by his wife. It would have been very powerful when Ian would learn the truth and confront his wife.

Zac: I think Ian learning Heptapod and his future would really throw a wrench into the paradox free fixed timeline. Though, I would have liked to have seen these actors do that scene.

Grant: Just when I thought we were done with paradox talk… How would Ian learning Heptapod create a paradox?

Zac: Ian’s reaction to Louise’s decision was to leave, so if he knew what was going to happen in the future I don’t see how I would buy him continuing on being, or deciding to, be with her. That could have opened a whole other conversation that could be interesting, does he not have a choice?, but I don’t see how this film could have tackled that idea as well as all of the other big ideas going on here.

Grant: Well we don’t know if Ian ever mastered Heptapod and gained foresight, but he definitely didn’t understand Heptapod well enough prior to the conception of their daughter. And the perception that his wife betrayed him by not warning him about the terminal disease is probably what prevented Ian from being able to enjoy the years with his daughter.

Do you have any small gripes about the film, or just the larger ones that you expressed earlier?

Zac: I don’t really have any other gripes. I think I just need to see it again as the pacing, mood and structure of the film were wholly unexpected. I look forward to seeing the film with a firmer grasp of what is going on. A gripe I have was the atrocious CGI hair and biosuits they were wearing, but I very much enjoyed the Heptapods.

Grant: I didn’t notice bad effects with the biosuits, but the hair did look bad (or at best strange). If I wanted to cut them some slack, then I would say the artificial atmosphere in the spaceship has so much moisture and they wanted it to appear almost as if she were underwater, but they just didn’t get it quite right.

I agree, the Heptapods looked great. I know Lauren saw their design as a flaw of the film, but I thought alien design was great. I heard an interview with Neill Blomkamp after District 9 came out talking about how they wanted to have the aliens look more foreign, but the filmmakers thought audiences wouldn’t sympathize with the aliens, so they gave them more human-like faces to better convey emotion. I like how Arrival didn’t take that shortcut and made it difficult to understand the feelings and motives of the aliens. It seems more realistic that a intelligence life form we come into contact with will be unlike anything we’ve seen on this planet and therefore we probably wouldn’t be able to easily read their emotions.

Zac: 100% agree. I loved their design and that the film even held back on their full reveal which was much appreciated. Their otherworldliness definitely contributed to the odd vibe of the film and I think the designers really nailed the balancing act of being both creepy and approachable. I have no complaints about the Heptapods in any way shape or form.

Grant: One thing that nobody is addressing is how important this movie is for linguists. Every profession deserves to have at least one film in which they are portrayed as practically having superpowers. And I am happy for linguists, now finally they get to strut around the house talking about how they could save the world one day.

Zac: Linguists Rule!

Grant: There is nothing else I wanted to talk about, but this film did get me thinking. In a way… we are all in death process.