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Time Heals All Wounds: Suffering and Temporality in Arrival By Esther Adema

This article contains spoilers

Another science-fiction film about an alien invasion, yet Arrival is like no other. In the opening scene of the film we meet Louise Banks (Amy Adams), as we see snapshots of her raising a daughter who dies of cancer as a teenager. In the next scene, a dozen extraterrestrial spaceships appear all over the world, hovering in the sky, their purpose unclear. The only sounds the aliens, referred to as heptapods, make are indecipherable to the army, so they visit Louise, a top linguist, to help them. Together with a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she is supposed to uncover what the aliens want from humanity and if they pose a threat. She realizes quickly that these heptapods do not speak; they only know written language. Their language is circular, with each circle having precise characteristics that indicate words or sentences. As Ian explains, “their written language has no forward or backward direction.”[1] Their language and way of thinking, unlike ours, does not know a beginning or end.

When Louise has taught them enough English and they have taught her enough of their language in turn to ask them what they want, their answer is to “offer weapon.” Some of the other countries receive similar messages from the spaceship hovering over their land and conclude that the heptapods are trying to start a global war. Louise insists that it must have been a misunderstanding, for weapon might also mean ‘tool.’ However, the situation escalates, with none of the countries communicating and China preparing to attack the heptapods. Eventually, Louise realizes that the ‘weapon’ the heptapods were referring to was their language. It allows her to break out of the linear way of thinking about time and instead view time as something non-linear. Effectively, this means that she can see the future and knows how to stop China from attacking. At this point, it is also revealed that she did not yet have a daughter: that is still to come. Despite knowing what will happen to her future daughter, Louise decides to have a child with Ian, accepting the inevitable suffering along with it.[2]

Arrival raises many points of discussion, from the importance of communication, to the extreme militarism of our current global politics, to the nature of suffering and its connection to time. It is this last point that will be discussed here, though it cannot be entirely disconnected from the other points. As will become clear, everything is interconnected.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

First, to understand the jump this film makes to Louise’s non-linear experience of time, we must understand the theory it is based on. It is mentioned briefly in the film itself: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory suggests that the language we speak is shaped by the culture we live in.[3] In its most extreme form, this does not only apply to words and concepts, but also to grammar itself. As Whorf explained, “the background linguistic system (in other words the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impression, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade.”[4] Put simply: the grammar of whatever language we speak determines how we view the world.


Arrival 1

Though this theory is by no means universally accepted, the point of this article is not to argue its merits or shortcomings. Arrival explicitly works from this hypothesis and so will this article. Within Whorf’s logic, it makes sense that Louise would start to think like the heptapods. After all, she spends day and night trying to decipher their language and to think like them. In so doing, her entire line of thinking and way of being is altered. If language is indeed “the shaper of ideas” and the idea conveyed by the heptapods’ language is that time is not linear, then time itself becomes a non-linear experience for Louise. The heptapods may have phrased it as a “weapon” because knowledge is a form of power.[5] In the sense that their language is a type of knowledge, their language becomes a powerful tool to reshape the world.

The Importance of Communication

Louise is the first, and as far as we know within the universe of this film, the only human character to experience time in a non-linear way. This raises the question of what makes her so different from the others? It becomes clear quite quickly that Louise’s methods of using written communication are picked up by the other landing sites almost immediately, so surely other linguists are using the heptapods’ language as well.


However, Arrival demonstrates in several ways that Louise is different from many other linguists. It starts when she is first approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). He does not want to grant her access to the site, instead wanting her to use the audio recordings they have made of the heptapods. When she explains that she needs to be there in person, he declares he will find another linguist. Louise tells Weber to ask the linguist for the Sanskrit word for war and its translation. This other linguist says it means “an argument,” whereas Louise says it means “a desire for more cows.”[6] Louise’s translation is clearly more attuned to the cultural specifics, evidencing a particular sensitivity on her part. She is not merely interested in translating a language, but also in understanding the cultural implications behind words. This makes her far more suitable for the job, as the cultural referents of the heptapods are bound to be vastly different from our own.

Her sensitivity is also instrumental in convincing China’s General Shang to stop the attack on the heptapods. She already speaks Mandarin, but that alone would not be enough to stop him. Speaking in his language does not only mean literally speaking the same words; it also means understanding each other on a more fundamental level. Language is not so simple as learning words, grammar, and syntax. Louise is able to stop General Shang because she tells him she knows something deeply personal, namely his wife’s dying words. She reaches out to him on a specific and emotional level, and that is what saves the day. If she had stuck to generic knowledge about China and Mandarin, she would not have been able to stop him.

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It is this ability that makes Louise the perfect candidate to receive the heptapods’ gift, for she is especially susceptible and open towards receiving new information from cultures that are not like her own. She is willing to go beyond a superficial understanding of words and grammar and instead get to the precise cultural meaning of any given concept. She uses a thoroughly situated understanding of language, meaning that she does not think of language as a source of universal knowledge, but rather as a source of highly specific knowledge.[7]As a result, she immerses herself completely in a culture, which in turn means that, following the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she begins to perceive time differently.

Suffering and Temporality

As a result of Louise’s change in perceived temporality, the meaning attributed to suffering also changes. This becomes most clear when Louise decides to have a child despite knowing the pain that will come with the inevitable future loss of that child. The notion that our perception of time influences our experience of suffering is not a new one. In fact, Arrival is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In it, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is abducted by aliens and brought to the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians explain to Billy that nobody ever really dies on Tralfamadore because they experience time in a non-linear way. As a result, they can always go back to those moments in which any given person is still alive, ensuring that they never really die.[8] After all, if time is not experienced as a straight line, there can be no end point either. Suffering therefore becomes entirely temporary. Billy even goes so far as to say that a supposedly dead person “is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.”[9] Nothing is permanent when time itself is fluid.

It is unclear whether Louise or the heptapods are able to control time to such an extent that they can simply choose any moment to experience. However, both Arrival and Slaughterhouse-Five deal with the impact that time has on suffering and on our lives in general. Furthermore, the fact that Louise receives information in the future, such as General Shang’s phone number and his wife’s dying words, which she uses in the present, suggests some level of control over which memories and events are at the forefront of her mind at any given time. Another explanation might be that any given event might trigger glimpses into the future, which present themselves to her as memories. Either way, the experience of suffering changes as a result of Louise’s non-linear experience of time.

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In fact, Eric Cassell, author of The Nature of Suffering, has explicitly linked suffering to temporality. He argued that suffering is connected to one’s sense of self, which in turn is linked to time. He suggested that “it follows, then, that suffering has a temporal element. For a situation to be a source of suffering, it must influence the person’s perception of future events.”[10]As we see in Arrival, Louise is still affected by her daughter’s death. She does not become unfeeling simply because she knows her daughter will die long before she is even born. Still, the fact that she knows it will come, changes the very nature of it. As Louise herself says; “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”[11] She has made the choice to accept and even embrace the pain that is to come, presumably because she also knows the joy that comes from her having a child. In this way, she can make a decision about whether or not this suffering is worth it and evidently, she has come to the conclusion that it is. Following the logic from Slaughterhouse-Five, Louise might have found enough comfort in the knowledge that in another moment, her daughter is still alive. Though Louise and indeed the entire human race may not be able to fully escape linear time, Louise has been given the gift of thinking in a non-linear way, which serves as a comfort and which allows her to handle the inevitable suffering she will feel as the result of the loss of her daughter.


At the heart of Arrival is a desire to truly understand each other – a desire that Louise can actually fulfill thanks to her careful consideration of the cultural context in which a language develops. Louise calls the heptapods’ language and the subsequent ability to see the future “a gift.”[12] Given the suffering that is to come for Louise, this may be a strange way to phrase it at first glance. However, seeing the future also gives Louise the unique ability to make a decision about her own suffering. Furthermore, it means that death is not necessarily the end, for there is no single end point to anyone’s life if time itself is not ordered in a linear way. The old adage that time heals old wounds therefore takes on a different meaning in Arrival. It is not the passing of linear time that heals wounds; rather, it is the non-linear structure of time that allows Louise to put her suffering in a different perspective and allows her to heal.

Works Cited

[1]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Perf. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Paramount Pictures, 2016. Film.


[3]Lamarque, Peter V. Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language.Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 1997. PDF. p. 77.

[4] Qtd. in Lamarque, Peter V. Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language. p. 77.

[5] Just, Edyta. “When a Photon Meets a Matter – A Brief Story of Seeing, Imag(in)ing and Knowing.” Science Communication and Critically Mediated Interventions. Linköping University, Sweden. Prerecorded Lecture. 13 Dec. 2016.

[6]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016.

[7] Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14.3 (1988). 575-99. p. 583.

[8]Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Random House, 1969. Print.

[9] Idem. p. 26-7.

[10] Qtd. in Malpas, Jeff, and Norelle Lickiss, Eds. Perspectives on Human Suffering. New York: Springer Science, 2012. Print. p. 11.

[11]Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016.

[12] Idem.