Today is a great day for narratology. It is so for the simple reason that we agreed to make things more complicated, beautifully so. It doesn’t matter how many Oscars end up in the hands of Denis Villeneuve for his sci-fi movie Arrival, what matter is its inescapable presence.
Storytelling, in all forms, has always been a way to shape our minds. Stories need to be entertaining in order to stand out from all the available ways to occupy ourselves, but also need to be challenging so we can step out of our habits, and learn to think something new.
Many movies have been able to satisfy both sides of the balance. Some by the order the story is been told, as for movies from Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994) to Memento (Nolan, 2000) and some reached similar effect by the inner story structure like Primer (Carruth, 2004), Looper (Johnson, 2012) or Triangle (Smith, 2009).
What makes Arrival particularly interesting is the prominent place given to a language itself, a language that allows for more intricate patterns and storytelling process.
Indeed, being presented on the other side of the mirror, within the diegetic world itself, this language permits time traveling by itself, understanding both future and past events at the same time and acting coherently with all of them.
Sadly, there is no proof such a language exist in our world. What we do have though is languages that help us understanding stories as groups of logical interactions of groups of events, just like in the classic publicity against drug abuse where one works more, to make more money, to make more drugs, to work more.
Of such languages are mathematics and the way we can use them to represent and understand stories, our own stories, and our own patterns. Such simple examples can easily be drawn and analyzed with graph theory and topology.
A conclusion we can drawn from Arrival, both in its content and its worldwide popularity, is that we might need to accept the fact that we need to learn something new to be able to solve, as humans, the the various pressing worldwide problems that could lead to our extermination, or at least mass decimation.
The fact we all seemed to touch so many of us could simply be the fact that it addresses the conclusion we have all already made, somewhere in our self-regulating surviving minds: we need to find solutions, solutions to problems deep enough that it could involve restructuring the way we tell ourselves, as a species, our own story, through mass media, through education, through thinking.
The fact that Arrival is there tonight might be a very indirect way of admitting it. Movies that create intricate story structures are a strong first step, since they are also a language. Arrival stands clearly as its own pertinent example. It’s entertaining enough that masses want to watch it, and complex enough so that we need to make links ourselves, conclude ourselves, think a step further.
The real arrival that is needed is not the aliens’ one, it’s the arrival of new languages, new paradigms.