loss as a universal language





This is how you can tell the world of Arrival is fiction. It’s not the floating spaceships or the squid aliens or the time tricks: it’s that loss is employed as a universal language, as a way to reach not just across species but across the seemingly more opaque boundaries separating us from our fellow humans, and it works.

Sitting in a theater watching Arrival a week after the American electorate placed a hatemongering demagogue into the most powerful position on the planet, one thing is clear: the scene that most encapsulates the world we live in isn’t the depiction of a hug — whether between lovers, or between mother and child, or between relieved comrades — it is the silhouettes of harried communications engineers staring at row after row of DISCONNECTED error messages that were, moments ago, the shared knowledge of the global community.

That is the world in which I lined up to see this movie.

Everybody knows, going in, that Amy Adams’ character, Louise Banks, is a renowned linguist recruited by the United States government to try and communicate with aliens that mysteriously appear in huge ships at different points around the globe. What you don’t necessarily know — and what I viscerally pity those affected going in unawares, for not knowing — is that the alien translation action is shot through with scenes surrounding the loss of a child. That this child in fact has yet to be lost is the crux of the movie — what we have been seeing is a preview of life to come, the “gift” of choice which the aliens have bestowed upon our heroine. But whether or not that child’s death is predicated in the future or past matters little to someone who has actually lost a child, I imagine. For the “I’d still choose to have this child even knowing she will die!” impact to hit, you have to have sat through the entire movie, by which point you’ll already have been wrung out, emotionally, I expect.


Look, this is going to sound harsh. But Louise’s hands shake when she is preparing to meet the aliens. And they continue to shake. That betrayed, to me, a startling amount of fear — of self-preservation — for someone who up to that point has been portrayed to us, through a narrative frame, as having every claim on emotional hollowness. Lack of self-preservation is what pushes Sandra Bullock’s character out into the cold vacuum of space in the first place in Gravity, right? When you lose your only child, you want to die. That is what books, movies and my own grandmother tells me. If it comes down to a choice between you and the baby in some shitty rural hospital in Maine, and some shitty doctor makes your husband choose and he chooses you, you resent him forever. That’s how it works, as I understand it. (Nonsensical though I objectively recognize that to be, since of course if the baby survived and you didn’t you wouldn’t be around to miss the baby…which I suppose is part of the point. I’d rather be dead than feel this loss.) So for Louise to care enough about the world and her place in it to fear…that seemed out of place to me. Long before we’re actually made aware that all the images of child loss we’ve seen are upcoming; that they’ve yet to happen to her — her desire not to die struck me as odd.

And that’s kind of hideous, right? Even as we were subjected to yet another shot of her hands shaking, I thought that’s a pretty vile assumption to hold her to. But the people I’ve known who’ve lost their children were wrecked by that loss. Utterly wrecked. And the stories we tell each other about people who’ve lost their children sanctify this destruction of self-preservation; they say this is normal to the point where, as someone who has neither had a child nor lost one, I expect a character who lost a child to want to die. That they might want to live — that they might find something worth living for — strikes me as bizarre; off-putting.”Unrealistic.” When you’re given substitution stories, where people found this or that god or cult in place of their lost child, I seethe. A child isn’t a smoking habit or a gambling addiction, I want to yell. You lost a person. You don’t replace people with concepts. Revenge, I’ve been taught by media to swallow, to some extent. (Even that has its limits, though: see Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, blech.) But erasure? No. That is not intelligible to me.

But of course this is all extraneous, right? I’m here to write about those few moments where the world of Arrival mirrored ours, especially after last Tuesday. And yet, I feel like the loss, its use as a tool of universal communication, was supposed to be one of those moments. When it is through calling the Chinese general and telling him his wife’s dying words over the phone; when it is being given the knowledge of what will happen to your child if you choose to have that child: these moments are supposed to say to us the viewers, see, we can come together and understand each other; it just takes an intensely personal disaster to recognize our shared humanity.

If loss is supposed to be a universal language though, folks? We have failed.

We have left our immigrants to lose their citizenship. We have left our marginalized communities to lose their safety. We have left Syrians to lose everything, over and over and over again. And we don’t care. Or at least, enough of us don’t care that we voted in someone who gives a rat’s rosy red behind whether or not eleven million people ever feel safe again. Ever find a home again.

We’ve seen loss, depicted in every medium we discover; disseminated across every arm of the media we invent, and it still hasn’t moved us to work together in a global way. We are still all staring at big DISCONNECTED screens. I was given to understand, through books, movies and actual people I’ve met, that the loss of a child is the single worst thing you will ever experience. And yet, we’ve been shown over and over again parents grieving over their children — whether bombed oceans away or shot in our schools — and it doesn’t seem to have mattered. We let them die. We continue to let them die.

So if loss — if empathy — is the last train heading away from self-destruction, we are fucked. Absolutely fucked. We have no tickets left.


***An aside: Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” subbing in for an otherwise lackluster score at the beginning and end of the movie, definitely cropped up on Pandora months ago as my father sent me angry despairing text after angry despairing text, chronicling Mom’s deterioration. If sorrow were a shared language, violins would have fixed a lot by now. Fuck you, violins.





  1. Timothy Streasick · November 18, 2016

    ** Spoilers for both Arrival and (loosely?) The Martian in Comment **

    So, like, first – fictional movie talk. On reflection, I think that the movie most comparable to Arrival is The Martian. Both are movies that, as far as their tension and central conflict is concerned, are focused on trying to get disparate groups of people from around the world to work together towards a common goal. Both primarily put the Americans at odds with the Chinese (though The Martian is a bit less, well, antagonistic than Arrival). But I feel like Arrival is more cynical than The Martian.

    Because, at the end of the day, The Martian seems to argue that people naturally evolve from concerning themselves with other people as far as their nation state is concerned towards considering people on a planetary scale. Like, I envision The Martian as being the first step in a series of steps that end with international governance, space exploration, and (*shudders with glee*) space naaaaviessss. But it’s all done naturally. It’s treated as an authentic reaction to a problem that requires international cooperation, which seems to put it more at odds with today’s atmosphere. It certainly feels decidedly naive after the election. But there wasn’t any magical causal looping time shenanigans involved. Almost as though Villeneuve and Heisserer are saying “Yeah, this won’t happen without magic.”

    But more on to the point of what you were talking about (at least insofar as empathy has been strangled in our modern world)…yeah, my optimistic self has really struggled to work up any hope. Even in Germany, of all places, we’re seeing right-wing regressive nationalism start to crop up again and gain support (though Merkel, badass she is, has been keeping those Motherf’ers in check).

    My one consolation is in the stuff talking about how much of our regressiveness seems to be tied along generational lines. Our history is full of examples of the ways in which empathy has expanded in ways totally unprecedented. The nation-state itself is a precarious example of people expanding their empathy beyond what was previously imagined. Sure, even that example is not 100% airtight (I’ll never forget the argument I had with a manager who insisted that he shouldn’t be responsible for helping to pay for the education of people outside his own district ), but we’re certainly more advanced in that regard than people were 150 years ago. And, if polls are to be trusted, we stand to continue moving forward in the future (even if the ball was dropped here).

    Which, thinking long game, I feel like we still stand a chance. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but if people continue to push for empathy without borders, race, whatever (through their actions, activism, etc.), then maybe we can move the ball down the field enough.

    This, of course, presumes we don’t all die in the next four years. But, fuck it, let’s try to maintain some optimism in our hypotheticals.

    But, yeah, movies in general (and the Arrival in specific) seem to take empathy as a some kind of universal emotion. We may all feel empathy, but it doesn’t transcend boundaries. Not always. Not unless we need to save Matt Damon.

    • Timothy Streasick · November 18, 2016

      Solution for the next four years:

      Launch Matt Damon into Space. Just right towards the Sun. International team building exercise right there.

      • metaphlame · November 18, 2016

        Save us, Matt Damon!

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