Pop Psych: ‘Arrival’ Teaches Us What It Means to Be Human

Depression--and what it means--in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival.

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters. This week: Depression–and what it means–in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. 

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival.
Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival. Paramount

It’s a little facile, but it’s often said in the field of Psychotherapy that depression exists in the past and anxiety exists in the future. In reality, neither exists, but the point the phrase is making is that endless rumination and constant planning are both sure-fire ways to screw up your mindset. Different parts of the mind communicate with each other by way of emotions, and it turns out that these messages need to be received in order for the mind to function properly. And because emotions happen in real time inside our bodies, that means if we spend all our attention inside our minds – remembering when times were good, or looking forward to better days – we will never be present for our own experience of happiness.

In the opening scenes of Arrival, we see Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) defying all expectations to tell her mom she’s doing the same as always – fine – on the same day that aliens make first contact with Earth. It’s astonishing; all around her people are panicking, cars are crashing, jets flying overhead, and Dr. Banks can barely muster the energy to answer her phone. In fact, it’s beyond astonishing, it’s impossible. Dr. Banks has made a career out of being the smartest person in the room, surely if she were paying attention she would realize that she most important day in human history was unfolding around her.

That she manages to remain in a state of total neutrality and avoid any excitement can only mean one thing: she’s not paying attention. Our bodies evolved as a means to convey DNA more effectively in the world, and as such they are always responding to external stimulus whether we realize it or not. This is probably why we see Dr. Banks spending so much time lounging around in bed, because she’s attending to and soothing an internal panic without realizing it. Mostly, she just sends the message that she has no idea what she’s doing here in her life, of what her story is supposed to be.

If you were a diagnostic type of person, you’d say she was struggling with clinical depression, hit her with some SSRIs, and move on. And you wouldn’t be wrong; an old professor of mine used to brag that they backed the Zoloft truck up to the political science building and just dumped the contents in the lobby. But there’s more to the story – depression can be understand as having lost your happiness somewhere in the past, and looking everywhere in your memory to find it. It’s a response to looking out at the present and being absolutely baffled by it, terrified of the apparent emptiness of endeavoring within your own life.

It’s against this backdrop of depression and loneliness that the alien Heptapods arrive, and it’s no coincidence that they come in ships called Shells that appear impermeable (but prove not to be). The Heptapods make contact, and the army comes to recruit Dr. Banks to translate. Translation, as we all learned by trying to get Google to do our Spanish homework, requires more than just swapping words from one language to another. What needs to happen is more than a communication of ideas, it is a communication of the context that makes those words meaningful. Dr. Banks is there to figure out what it means to be a Heptapod, and to teach them what it means to be a Human.

Trouble is, Dr. Banks doesn’t quite remember this. Her early efforts are stymied and unenthusiastic, and she makes little progress up front. As she grows more comfortable in her role, though, and is welcomed into presence by her team, she makes a tremendous discovery. During a translation session, she steps out of her hazmat suit into a potentially toxic atmosphere. And as the military around her all begin to panic, her coworker, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), joins her in shedding the armor. This leads to a breakthrough in the translation efforts, as the two of them become acquainted with their Heptapod counterparts.

The reason this works is that it conveys two fundamental facts of Human life: that we are vulnerable, and that we face our fears together. This connects the first word Dr. Banks teaches the Heptapods, Human, to what it means to be Human. But it also connects her to the same meaning, a thing that she forgot somewhere long ago. She is reminded that she can be vulnerable and survive the things that permeate her, and she is reminded that people will go on this journey of vulnerability with her.

As the story continues, we see that Dr. Banks has been permeated by her environment – as she becomes fluent in the Heptapod language, she begins to experience time non-linearly. She can see what the future holds for her, the various successes and failures that wait to unfold. And most clearly, she can see the greatest triumph and tragedy of her life coming into clear view: the birth of a wonderful daughter, and that daughter’s premature death. It’s a breathtaking gift, and its implications are far-reaching.

Being able to live outside of time presents Dr. Banks with a hell of a dilemma. Knowing what she does about the future, about all the joy and sorrow that it holds, no one could blame her for retreating back into her hermitage, for rejecting Ian’s advances, for washing her hands of this whole awful experiment called being alive. But she doesn’t. She chooses instead to stay present to the process. She makes the conscious decision to welcome both joy and pain into her life.

She is able to do this because she understands those basic facts of life she had to teach to the Heptapods, the vulnerability required by being Human. Whereas before, she feared the present and future because of something lost in the past, she is now able to handle the present because she can accept the pain waiting for her in the future. She knows she will survive it for a while, and then eventually she will die. And in the meantime, the joy of life, of knowing a happy-if-brief marriage, of spending time with her lovely-but-doomed daughter, is enough. She is able to get to now, and to stay here for whatever comes next.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.

Pop Psych: ‘Arrival’ Teaches Us What It Means to Be Human