Warning: Major spoilers ahead for Arrival. Also, science.
Sometimes you go to see a movie expecting it to be something, to fit into a specific box, and you're shocked to discover that your expectation and the reality don't fit. That can often be a disappointing experience, but in the case of #Arrival it's the opposite. #DenisVilleneuve's sci-fi drama was marketed as a movie about first contact with an alien race. And sure, that's fun. It's also been done before, a lot. The real story of Arrival is both vastly more original and a lot tougher to wrap your head around.
This is a story about time, and how the way we perceive it shapes the way we experience it. It's a time travel story in which the only time machine is the human mind itself. Having already written about Arrival's mind-bending twist and the clues that signalled it, I wanted to dive deeper into the scientific theories behind the movie and the short story it was adapted from (that would be Ted Chiang's Story Of Your Life, well worth a read) to pose the question: Will it ever be possible to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, as Dr. Louise Banks does in Arrival?
Sapir-Whorf & Time As Perception
The idea itself of time being a matter of perception is nothing new — think about how time can appear to pass more slowly when tired or under the influence of drugs. In these instances, though, the passage of time directly relates to changes in the chemical structures of our bodies.
Arrival puts forward the controversial idea that time, rather than being linear by definition, exists as a loop, that the past, present and future are accessible at all times, and that man can rewire his own sense of perception and teach himself to experience time in this way via the medium of language.
The basis of this theory is a branch of linguistics theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Sapir-Whorf states that the differences in structure between one language and another — English and Mandarin, for instance — can either determine or influence our cognition (memory, judgment, problem-solving abilities and so on) and thus our perception of the world. In the movie, Ian himself mentions this theory, foreshadowing Louise's journey.
Louise uses Ian's breakthrough with regards to the final message sent by Abbott and Costello, before the explosive inside the ship was detonated, to infer that the Heptapods are attempting to communicate a message about time. When she returns to speak with Costello, the pieces fall into place: Her visions are actually "memories" of a future not yet lived or, to think of it another way, "flash-sideways" sequences in which she experiences her future simultaneously with present. Sometime in the near-future, her continued study of the language "Heptapod B" rewires Louise's sense of perception and allows the Louise of the present to experience time in a nonlinear manner, a kind of advanced evolution of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
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The Predestination Paradox
If time is nonlinear and the future is already set in stone, the idea of the "causal loop" inevitably comes into play. When Costello reveals to Louise that the Heptapods' reason for coming to Earth is to offer the tool of their language, knowing that in return they will need humanity's help in 3000 years, a seemingly impossible paradox arises: If humanity have already saved the Heptapods in the future, why do they need to share their language in the present?
Essentially, Event A (the aliens' arrival on Earth) causes Event B (humanity saving their race), but without Event B (a situation in which the Heptapods realize the importance of sharing their language for the purpose of self-preservation) there is no Event A, even though the latter happened first. In most #scifi a causal loop could also be interpreted as a major plot hole.
Arrival gets around it by creating a status quo in which all time exists on a loop, and those who perceive time in that way have infinite access to all events on their loop, past or future. Therefore, neither Event A nor B happened "first" — everything in Louise's life has already happened, just as her daughter's death has already happened. She doesn't have the choice not to begin a family with Ian, despite knowing that her daughter will die young of a rare genetic disease, because the future is pre-determined.
"Free will" therefore reshapes itself as the power to create the future you were always destined to have, and have already had, through your actions in the present.
So, Could Any Of It Actually Happen?
Over the years, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has attracted quite a degree of criticism, and has yet to be proven in any meaningful way. Of course, that's not to say it can't or won't one day be proven — just that science hasn't got there yet.
To my knowledge, Arrival is the only sci-fi movie which runs with the concept of linguistic relativity and connects it to the concept of time and nonlinearity. So, in my opinion, the journey Louise takes in Arrival is better viewed as a musing on one, perhaps-improbable but nonetheless still possible, way in which the infinite power of time could one day be unlocked, as opposed to a stone-cold prediction that language will be the tool which changes our linear perception of time's passage.
If you feel like taking a deeper cinematic dive into the branch of sci-fi that explores time in a similar way to Arrival, 12 Monkeys, Predestination, Looper, Mr. Nobody, The Time Traveller's Wife and the excellent, intensely surreal Spanish sci-fi flick Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) all merit a look.
Do you believe the science of Arrival could ever manifest itself in the real world, or will time always exist in a strictly linear fashion?