This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
☆ Sophie ☆’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"I used to think this was the beginning of your story... We're so bound by time", Dr. Louise Banks said within the first 30 seconds of the film. Little did I know upon my first viewing that this was the exact theme of the whole movie. Rewatching this film is a gift. I feel like you watch the first time as Louise and the second as the Heptapod. The film starts similarly to the way the movie ends. The same song plays, the story is mostly the same, however, we already know what happens by the "end" so its a completely different experience by that point.
Arrival, to its core, is about the power of language, and how much language shapes who we are, what we think, how we see the world around us. When the mysterious alien race comes to earth, Louise is tasked with discovering their language and how to communicate with them to understand why they're here. As she learns more, she discovers that they don't think like we think or communicate like we communicate. She finds that aliens are not bound by time as the humans are.
After doing some research on the film, I've come to realize something intriguing. There's a dialogue between Ian and Louise halfway through the movie where they discuss the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis,' which essentially means if you study a foreign language long enough, you can rewire your brain; that the language you speak determines how you think. As Louise learns more of this alien language, she begins acquiring the knowledge to think how they think - which is non-linear, unbound by time. Now I think this part of the film was interesting because it happens almost around the exact midpoint of the film. Suppose we view the film as a "circle of events," then that "midpoint" in the center and core value/theme of the film. This theme is present throughout the whole movie: from her daughter to the spelling of her daughter's name, Hannah (will explain more soon), to the big reveal at the end.
Like Louise's daughter's name, Hannah, this movie can be seen as a palindrome during rewatches. Additionally, the story is told in some sort of nonlinear format. It's said in somewhat of a "circular" format in a way just like the Heptapod's language. Some people would say there is "time travel" involved in this film. I wouldn’t call it time travel. The language “reprogrammed” her brain. Her brain now sees time the way the heptapods do, which is why she can see her daughter in the future. She hadn’t realized that she saw the future yet, so she was processing what she saw the only way she knew how, as memories. Another big clue here is that the heptapod language doesn’t have any sense—no forward or backward indication. With no beginning or end (just like a circle), it’s almost as if she doesn’t see “time” anymore. She sees it all at once. This would also explain how she “remembered” the phrase to tell the Chinese commander. She hadn’t experienced it yet, but to her newly reprogrammed brain, there is no more “yet.”
But the real beauty is that the farther (Ian) and the viewer go together to acquire the knowledge along with Louise. In the end, we too understand that the story itself is non-linear - the beginning of the movie is actually the end. We see the beginning and think it's the beginning as you normally do, but as we become immersed and follow Louise, learning what she learns, we too become set free by time. So the main question is: If you knew your life from beginning to end, would you change anything? Arrival is more than an alien invasion film, which we've seen time and time again. It's much deeper than that and should be appreciated as such as Arrival showcases the art of storytelling.