Article by Lawrence McCarthy
The 2016 movie, Arrival, was nearly not released in China. I remember this well, because I was very anxious to see it at the time. It seemed it would not be released, then the Chinese authorities changed their minds.
I believe I know why. It’s not because of a change of heart on the part of the authorities, but because the true meaning of the story is far less critical of China than first appears.
(SPOILERS coming. If you haven’t seen Arrival, watch it today. It’s good.)
To recap, the Chinese are the paranoid ones, convinced the aliens have come to play human nations off against each other and conquer the planet.
Of course, it turns out the aliens are friendly. Far from conquering Earth, they trade their own language, which grants knowledge of the future, for a spaceship 3000 years later. Bargain.
But is that really the story of the film?
I want to begin by making clear that I’m not saying, “Here is a new and interesting way of looking at things, take it or leave it.” I am saying, “My reading of the film is the objectively correct one intended by the director.”
Villeneuve is a famously subtle director. I firmly believe he concealed a second, true story within or underneath the surface, false story.
The truth of Arrival is that the Chinese are right. The Hectapod aliens are hostile, they did come to conquer Earth and what’s more they succeeded without firing a shot and so subtly that most of the audience don’t realize it.
Exhibit A: The book.
There is a technique in writing whereby one tells the entire story in the first sentence. It’s hard to do but a very strong technique. A good example is from the Chinese epic Three Kingdoms. “The empire long divided must unite, long united must divide.” That is, in a nutshell, the story of the entire rest of the novel.
Near the beginning of the film, Hawkeye reads the introduction to the heroine’s book on linguistics.
“Language is the first weapon drawn in every war.”
Exhibit B: The Meeting in the future.
Look at the Chinese general’s face. Is that the look of a man in full possession of his senses? He tells our linguist heroine that “you were able to do what even my superior could not do.”
As the commander in chief of the PLA, this character has only one human superior – the president of China. Wouldn’t he refer to him as the president rather than the more amorphous term, awkward in this context, “superior”? I suggest his superior is his assigned alien. Moreover, he is at the party delivering his phone number with no clear understanding of why. Added to his brainwashed appearance, this is highly suspicious.
Most damning of all in this scene, look closely at the flags on the wall. Numerous human flags are present, but right in the center and larger than all the others is the flag of the aliens. Almost as if they were the ruling power. Checking carefully through an earlier scene in which many alien glyphs pop up on the screen, I was able to confirm that the symbol on the banner means “Earth.” So it is not the flag of the aliens – that would presumably carry the symbol of their own home planet – but Earth in the alien language. Rather reminiscent of, for example, the British colonists in India renaming Mumbai “Bombay”. It very much appears to be the occupying power’s name for a subsumed territory.
Exhibit C: The not so mysterious verb.
A key plot development arises after the humans ask “What is your purpose on Earth?” The alien reply is variously translated as “offer weapon” and “use weapon.”
It is suggested that there may be an ambiguity between “weapon” and “tool.” Unlikely. We see the aliens preparing to fight after the Chinese declare war on them, and their warning of the bomb planted by some rogue US GIs shows that they have certainly seen enough of human violence to know what a weapon is, even if they were non-violent themselves.
The simplest possible resolution of the ambiguity in the verb (does it mean “offer” or “use”?) is that it actually means a third thing, difficult to translate into an English word but simple enough to render as a sentence: “use by offering.”
The alien language is a weapon which one wields by offering. That it is a weapon is easily confirmed, in that after the humans learn it, the aliens get what they wanted.
Some people are able to learn the language while others don’t. We might consider the social ramifications of one group of people knowing the future while others don’t. It causes havoc enough with the heroine’s marriage. I think there might be a good deal of rioting going on outside that swanky party in the future. The film mentions on numerous occasions the deeds of various human empires – is not one thing every colonial power did to cultivate a native elite which speaks its own language?
Finally, all this about knowing the future raises huge issues around free will. Based on the behaviour of the Chinese hero – thwarted, alas, at the last minute and the commitment of the heroine to a child she knows will die and a marriage she knows will fail, it appears that, whether or not humans can choose to behave differently to what they remember of their future choices, they in fact do not.
Does this not in fact make one a slave?
“You taught me your language, and my profit on’t that I know how to curse,” said Shakespeare’s Caliban. Humanity’s profit on learning the alien language is submission to an alien empire, social division and an elite which de facto has no free will.
The Chinese were right. Be vigilant.
That is the true message of Arrival.
Lawrence McCarthy is from England and is the author of two novels, including Kung Fu Jesus.