I see my last article posted in September; what a blessedly innocent time those halcyon days were, before the shivering nights of early November rained down its misfortune upon us all. We’ll come to know those pre-autumnal moments as The Before Times, When Things Were Good. We’ll speak of them in hushed, reverent tones, lost to myth and imagination and the elders who died long before the Black Days of Now, before the bands of raiding marauders freely roamed the billowing smoke-filled wastes we call home, leaving the rest of us to wake to blood-caked sand around our simple yurts.
Yes, the end times are imminent, and you know, I really thought it would look more apocalyptic. On my list of “Ways America is Probably Going to Destroy Itself For No Good Reason, Kinda Like Mickey Rourke,” I have to say voting in a completely-unqualified ochre-tinted carnival barker and his pack of beefwitted Neo-Nazi friends was not among my top picks (higher on that list: Economic Crisis, Infrastructure Failure, Kaiju Brawl, Robot Uprising, and Gamma Bomb That Turns Us All Into Sterilized and Sexually-Frustrated Hulks). Regardless, we can assume that this new shining city on the hill (burning is a kind of shining, right?) is going to try very very hard to unmake . . . like . . . everything good that America has done since 1946. NATO. The Civil Rights Act. Obergefell v. Hodges. The 14th Amendment. The Battlestar Galactica remake. Entenmann’s Chocolate Donuts in the case at the end of the aisle. And of course, the crown jewel in the twisted “I hate big government tellin’ me what to do unless we’re talking about subjugating people that ain’t me for no goddamn sound reason” logic pommelhorse: Roe v. Wade, and . . . I wish to god I was talking about Deadpool at a caviar buffet.
Have you guys seen Arrival yet? Because I’m gonna talk about Arrival now. Lots of Arrival talk from here out, with spoilers. So many spoilers. More spoilers than a Camaro dealership.
SPOILERS FOR ARRIVAL HENCEFORTH
Despite no longer holding its much-touted 100% RT rating, Amy Adams’ new sci-fi navelgazer is a pretty amazing film with a script that’s more invested in showing characters solving problems and building relationships and less about shooting cool shit with a chaingun. Adams plays Louise, a brilliant academic and linguistic specialist sent to decode the language of newly-arrived alien beings who seem fairly innocuous but the whole goddamned world’s governments are all, “Okay, yes, they’re nice, sure, but–and hear me out–but what if we just fucking shoot them? That works, right?” Louise, in her limited amount of time, is trying to solve the Heptapod language before the Chinese and Pakistani and American militaries whip out their missiles and prematurely immolate our friendly Kodos and Kang buddies. In her studies, she begins to learn their warbly circle language (which looks like your napkin at the diner after the waitress tops your coffee off too much), and in succeeding in this, she gains a form of singular omniscience. She can see forward in time as well as backwards. She has, effectively, become a time traveller, albeit one limited to her own timeline.
Now, time travel stories are almost inherently paradoxical due to things like the butterfly effect and the impermanence of our planet’s position and, like featured in this film, causal loops: events caused in the present by actions in the future. Louise saves the day at the climax by talking down the Chinese general using a story about his wife’s passing . . . a story Louise didn’t learn about until months later when she met the general in person. However, Louise used her new future-memory powers to pull a last-minute victory completely out of her ass; in the denouement we have the shocking reveal that all the flashbacks Louise was having during the film about her daughter who died of an incurable illness were actually flashforwards–memories of events that had yet to occur during the time of the central story.
The film wraps up in a very morally and emotionally gray area: does Louise have any free will anymore? Does anyone? The entire reason the Heptapods came to Earth in the first place was to deter certain undescribed negative events far into their future (3,000 years, they tell us). So do the Heptapods come to Earth under their own free will to change their future? Or are they simply walking through another predestined causal loop? If Louise and Dr. Hawkeye hook up after the events of the film, does their future still go terribly awry the way Louise foresaw, with their divorce and their daughter’s tragic death? If Louise has any free will, is she knowingly and selfishly condemning her unborn daughter to dying young, just so she can ensure the the happiness she retains from being her daughter’s mother?
This could be argued as a resounding pro-life sentiment, if this is the reality the film asks us to believe; it also can be argued as a deeply unsettling bit of pro-choice agency. Either Louise can see the future and for whatever reason cannot change it, or she consciously chooses not to unmake a future that could exist.
But what if our timeline is concrete? What if free will does not really exist? By the end of the film, Louise’s consciousness is virtually experiencing her entire life all at once. If this immovable temporal state is accurate, Louise doesn’t so much as “see the future” as she does “exist at all points in her own timeline.” It’s intriguing, and reshapes the way we might see the story, but as argued above, this kind of reality is reliant on the existence of causal loops–and those can’t really exist without handwaving it away as something like “we simple humans can’t comprehend spacetime the way the friendly octonauts do” to make the question moot and unsolvable. Regardless, in this case Louise’s seeming acquiescence to a future that shows the heartbreak of losing a child and a failing marriage is not her resigning herself to that fate at all–if free will is not a thing, then Louise can’t be held accountable for continuing down that path. It’s simply a case of Louise’s consciousness remembering the range of emotions those unchangeable events cause on her personal timeline. This argument gives the most absolution to Louise’s agency, but at the cost of being ultra-reductive; nothing can change, or will change, or has changed . . . ever. Things simply are, all of existence is a fourth-dimensional recursive loop, and consciousness is simply how we perceive our place in it.
But the film seems to contradict at least twice the idea that the future is immutable. The aliens being in the present, as explained above, was an act of defense that wouldn’t come to fruition for thousands of years. I feel assured suggesting this as the proof that no, actually, the future is not static, because that implies the two causal loops the plots depend upon are fixed in time, and if anyone who has studied quantum theory out there wants to argue with me, be my guest, but I’m fairly sure fixed causal loops are impossible. The second causal loop is trickier to explain; how could Louise have used the knowledge she gained from speaking with General Shang in the future to inform past action? I think this may be proof of the film subscribing to a multiple timeline theory, but to get to that point you have to concede that without knowing the info before calling the general, Louise and her linguistic brilliance thought up something good enough to get the general to stand down–Or, that Louise’s consciousness understood the outcomes of so many likely futures that in one of those she learned the info she needed.
You notice how the aliens don’t jet off at the end of the movie? They don’t get all Spielbergian and depart in a technicolor blaze of euphoria, they just . . . vanish. Disapparate. Fade away, not unlike Marty McFly’s shitty older brother. Is that because they’re fucking mysterious and unknowable squidmen from beyond? Or is it because, now that they succeeded in their mission with Louise, the mission never needs to happen 3,000 years from now?
Now back to my bigger question: Is this film pro-life? Is Louise choosing to bring her daughter Hannah into the world, knowing what fate awaits her? And if so, why?
Now, I don’t agree with the concept of determinism on a fundamental level; I completely believe in free will, though I admit that much of modern science subscribes to a type of quantum-level determinism, and that I can’t really argue with (though possibly because I’m not well-enough equipped). That digression aside, despite the existence of the universe potentially being a deterministic superposition, our individual behavior within that system is, I believe, as plastic as spacetime will allow. The film at times seems to take the opposing side–that static values exist along all temporal points–under certain interpretations.
There’s a few different ways to sort through the logic and philosophical underpinnings here. If Louise has free will, and chooses this foreseen path anyway, what motivates her decision? Why does she allow Hannah to live?
The most difficult interpretation for me to reconcile is the possibility that Louise is operating out of selfless altruism. What if she makes her choice because she can’t bear the idea of terminating someone’s existence, once the joy of that existence is already a known value? But it’s only altruism if Hannah benefits in a way she would agree with. Who is Louise to say that she’s making the choice her daughter would want? Under these rules, Louise makes the choice for another person to allow them to experience the joys of existence at the cost of a very untimely demise. I can’t answer if this is the right choice to make, because holy shit this is a difficult question. Maybe Louise is wrong. The film doesn’t seem to be saying that, but who can really say for certain? We should probably ask Hannah on her deathbed.
Or consider that in some unspoken way, Hannah’s existence is another necessary point along an optimal timeline. Is Louise bringing this tragedy to life to satisfy a best-case future scenario for a unknown (by the audience) greater good? Was this not something the aliens themselves did, possibly sacrificing themselves to cement a better future? I wish the film spoke to this more, because there’s much to mine there.
More understandable, but much more painful, is the possibility that Louise is acting out of selfish regard for her own desires. What if Louise chooses to bring Hannah into the world, knowing her fate, simply because she can’t bear the heartache of not knowing her daughter for the limited time she will have with her? It’s easy to say, “Louise is a monster for dooming her daughter for her own personal fulfillment,” and it’s probably even easier to say that if you’re not a parent.
I am a parent, though. I’m a mom to a two-year old, and that kiddo is the highlight of my existence. He makes me impossibly good about myself, and the thought of never having met him is unbearable. Every moment with him is a joy and the only thing I’ve ever had approaching a religious experience. He gives me hope and purpose, even when I find none elsewhere.
However, consider the case of the Stepanek family, whose youngest son, Mattie, gained international fame as a child genius and poet before succumbing to a rare genetic disease at age 13. It was a tragedy, but here’s something many people don’t know: Mattie had three older siblings, and all of them died very young of the same genetic disease, two of them before he was even born. For whatever reason, Mr. and Mrs. Stepanek made the conscious choice to bring more children into their world, knowing what their likely fate would be.
As a parent, I don’t think I could do that. Ever. But then again, the choice to never share my child with the world is my choice, and mine to live with.
Okay, so what if all of the above are wrong? What if Louise not only has free will, but can see all likely futures? What if she can use her foreknowledge to change the future? It can be argued the film suggests this already, with the fact that the Heptapods seem to be trying to change their own future. It also seems to argue that having this prescient gift isn’t all-encompassing; if it were, you’d think someone, human or cuttlefish, would have done something about that bomb that fucked everything up and killed one of the aliens. Extrapolating from that, you can imagine scenarios where Louise chooses futures where she successfully navigates her heartache. Maybe she chooses not to get pregnant at the same time she did in a different future, and the different sperm/egg combination result in a child that doesn’t become ill. Maybe she adopts. Maybe she doesn’t have kids at all.
The frustrating thing here is that while the movie argues for the mechanisms that you can employ to make these conclusions, the tone and images on screen seem more vague and noncommittal to those outcomes.
And maybe that’s the film’s greatest flaw, this vagary and conflicting presentations of chronological agency. I’m not sure it ever makes a strong argument for any singular ruleset, and seemingly argues against itself several times with unresolved inconsistencies. As I’ve demonstrated, there’s enough there to argue for several very different outcomes, and to have the only reconciliation to that be, “lol silly human with your three-dimensional brain,” feels like a cheat. And a cheat, to me, almost always comes off as a lack of imagination or articulative ability.
Much like the varying interpretations I’ve offered, if you want to believe Arrival is a pro-choice film, there’s plenty of evidence to support that view. Yet there also exists arguments to the exact opposite. Now that’s maddening in an articulate way, unlike a certain eldritch horror and his mealy-mouthed (tentacled?) allusions.
Maybe this article will help form your own ideas on the film’s message. Maybe your ideas were already formed and, like you reading this article, were predestined all along. We’ll never know.