'On the Nature of Daylight': Arrival's Gentle, Beating Heart

Alex Lindstrom
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' signaled that as a new parent, I was going to have a relationship with Arrival's message.

Freefall Into Future

Richter asks us to reflect on 'the nature of daylight', on the inseparability of light and dark.
Louise spends the full middle portion of the film attempting to slowly and painstakingly develop a rapport with an alien species which communicates not with words that we can understand, but with shapes which may remind one of Zen Buddhist ensōs if they featured various protrusions (a visual narrative which ties intimately with what Arrival is getting at, as it pairs with the minimalism of Richter's work). While overworked and often quite terrified, she makes a diligent sort of progress while fighting off increasing attacks on the validity of her efforts (efforts which, for Villeneuve, appear to stem entirely from powerful men itching to view their new visitors in simplistic terms rather than develop the patience to understand them).

It is via the resistance Louise combats in the face of her slow, tedious, yet peaceful and compassionate work that the film takes the opportunity to explore the variety of responses such a world-changing event would evoke, both from military/political elites and the regular citizenry we watch grow increasingly restless along with its leaders. The visitor's insistence on describing their interests in the human race in terms of their visual representation for 'weapon' sends shock waves through jittery officials terrified of worst case scenarios, scenarios which a reactionary public seems to demand tougher responses to. These growing demands are shown to be the result of mounting public 'leaks' of talks with the visitors and military intelligence, where it seems Arrival wishes to remind us that world governments are increasingly incompetent at secrecy (and the management of discursive legitimacy) in an often anarchical and progressively digitizing information landscape, a lesson that 2016 amply demonstrated for some of the most powerful people in the world.

Worse for our researchers, the soldiers who escort Louise are shown watching a web-bound presumably-far right polemicist (Mark Camacho as Richard Riley, a clear Bill O'Reilly/Alex Jones stand-in) vitriolically demanding those tougher responses, resulting in a conspiratorial and violently reactionary bombing attempt on the alien visitors with tragic consequences. China leads this reactionary charge on a global scale, in part (it is explained) because it chose to communicate with the visitors via games which promise competition and loss via the necessity of a 'fail state', because China's chosen linguistic tool served as a 'hammer which can only see nails'.

It should be said, however, that Arrival doesn't seek to contrast the US as some champion of patience and reason, but casts a critical eye at the behavior of all involved governments while ending on compassionate notes (even for the Chinese general who so nearly led the world to war). This balance shouldn't come as terribly surprising for fans of director Villeneuve's previous effort, Sicario (2015), a stunningly tense film which serves as a jarring wake-up call for an American public unwilling to think critically about what the CIA (and the United States government) is culpable for in their 'security operations'.

I was first introduced to this idea of language as a weapon, of 'enemy images', during my bachelors at WIU via Sam Keen's Faces of the Enemy (1989), a sociological investigation which posits that we 'think others to death' before picking up a weapon, that "the enemy is constructed from denied aspects of the self" (p. 11). For me, these ideas unfolded the tragedy of human conflict while opening new avenues for political theory, inquiry, and eventually future research, research which would analyze militaristic, xenophobic, and identitarian manipulative-discourses with the guidance of critical discourse theorists like Isabela and Norman Fairclough, Tuen A. van Dijk, and Ruth Wodak.

It is here that in a year full of the discourses of fear (the elite-assisted exploitational processes of creating 'psychologies of enmity', as deployed by both sides of America's dysfunctional oligarchical duopoly) that Arrival demonstrates its political acumen by making salient and necessary commentaries on politics via the lens of its protagonist and its linguistic themes. The visitors, by virtue of their intellect and distant perspective, immediately identify our language, our very means of communication upon which all shared knowledge and societal development lies dependent for our world, as our first and greatest weapon. This serves as an unexpected insight from unexpected visitors, which befuddles even Louise for much of the runtime (despite her familiarity with the concept).

It is as the film closes that it returns (much as we are returning) to Richter's 'Daylight' and the personal tragedy at the core of Louise's story. As global and peer anxieties advance (frustratingly proportional to her growing success), a burden seems to grow on Louise. As viewers, she appears to be physically distressed by memories of her lost child. Questions abound: is the stress getting to her? How recently did she lose her child? Has she not had time to process it? Increasingly, we don't know whether we are peering into Louise's mind or if she is having vivid PTSD-like visions. Slowly, the Sapir-Whorf theory properly rears its head: Louise's growing understanding of our visitor's strange language seems to inform the very manner in which she actively perceives, relates to, and understands her environment.

This process culminates in Louise's realization that her understanding of their language is allowing her to experience time non-linearly, not as a literal time-traveler whose body trapezes around history like Doctor Who, but as a stationary observer, a kind of soothseer who can potentially 'see' all of time (past and present) via a single experiential stream. By the film's conclusion, the audience is permitted to catch up: Louise's 'visions' during her work with our extraterrestrial visitors were projections into the future, promises of an unborn child she had yet to have with Renner's Donnely. It is in full knowledge of her future child's untimely end that she nonetheless embraces Donnely and moves forward, much as she embraces the realization that she cannot hope to avoid the death of her only child.

This is the somber, aching melody with which Richter asks us to reflect on 'the nature of daylight', on the inseparability of light and dark, and it is a testament to Villeneuve's direction that he was able to utilize his apparent admiration for Richter's work to such appropriate effect in a story which casually appears to be about some strange linguistic theory, aliens, and 'time travel'. This contrast in tone between the opening/closing segments (which utilize 'Daylight' and function as a kind of dreamlike montage) and the body of the film (which rather relies on more straightforward editing and Johannsson's foreboding score) is quite deliberate on Villeneuve's part, as Jóhannsson relayed in an interview with Slashfilm, wherein he noted that he “very much supported” the use of Richter's work for those scenes.

For, while Arrival is indeed about aliens, linguistics, politics, and technology, the film ends with a desire for the audience to understand one thing above all else: that life is worth living. That despite terrible ugliness, misfortune, hatred, disorder, chaos, depression, anxiety, disease, war, and unspeakable cosmic injustices such as the untimely loss of one's child, the callousness with which a seemingly indifferent universe so often regards the boundless value of youthful innocence, that to affirm life is to affirm suffering, and to affirm the inevitability of suffering (rather than unendingly struggle with it) makes all the difference. This admittedly difficult sentiment was well articulated by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell; Campbell regards the suffering from which life is unalienable, this “freefall into future”, as resolved by “[turning] your fall into a voluntary act. It's a very interesting shift of perspective and that's all it is… joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.” (Sukhavati: A Mythic Journey, 2007).

Abigail Pniowsky as 8-Year-Old-Hannah

It is this 'interesting shift of perspective' which is manifested via Louise's' immersion in an alien language, this 'voluntary' suffering which transforms the way she engages with her own life and her world. Villeneuve is positioning this simple but essential message to clash directly with Arrival's true antagonist, the 'weaponized' fear-based language Louise stands in opposition to throughout the film (whether in her distaste for how the US military utilized her expertise in the War on Terror, or in the push-back she unceasingly received from reactionary officials in her struggle to engage with the visitors patiently and compassionately). Accepting and living with the promise of loss, a conclusion Louise realizes she must embrace, is Arrival's way of revealing to the audience the paradoxical composition of life's beauty.

Villeneuve understands that to have any hope of effectively reaching a film-going audience with such an unintuitive and cerebral set of themes requires no lack of engaging pathos, and it's Richter's 'Daylight' which so appropriately guides the audience on the most difficult part of their journey. Arrival's piercing insight, this compassionate message about our shared struggle, transcends a political environment that is so often utterly toxic, petty, unintelligible, and debasing. It challenges us to consider what could happen if we would for once simply stop, sit, and listen to our 'enemies' (to those dark yet wholly imagined manifestations of the 'Other'), forcing a world on edge to wonder if this simple act could be enough to change the course of history and even transform ourselves.

In this sense, Villeneuve's latest carries optimism in a way alien to Sicario, a film which sought to give its audience a visceral experience of state oppression (and the horror of one's powerlessness in the face of it). Rather than continuing to indulge our growing fears in this ongoing Age of Anxiety, confronting these fears and accepting that we cannot escape discomfort, pain, and loss may just be enough to allow us to experience that Campbellian shift of perspective so desperately needed in order to help us understand one another, and ourselves.

Works Cited

Campbell, J., Harris, M., Rochlin, S., 2007. Sukhavati: A Mythic Journey, Acorn Media (Acacia), Hither Hills Productions and the Joseph Campbell Foundation. DVD.

Hall, Jacob. “Jóhann Jóhannsson talks about his arrival music.” / Featured Stories Sidebar. Slashfilm, 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

Keen, S., 1989. Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination 1st ed., New York: Harper & Row.

Richter, M., 2004. RICHTER, Max: Blue Notebooks (The). Naxos Digital Services US Inc., n.d. CD.

Alex Lindstorm is a graduate of University College London with a multidisciplinary focus on how media (news or entertainment) and political elites influence public opinion via critical discursive analysis. His academic writing has focused on how elites around the globe use similar manipulative discursive strategies across time and space to scapegoat minority/immigrant populations for the purposes of political platforming and the generation of otherwise socially illegitimate violent conflict. He works with Chicago-area non-profits in combating local homelessness and food insecurity.

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