Arrival – a film about astrology?

The film Arrival appeared on mainstream cinema screens towards the end of last year and has been widely acclaimed as the best science fiction film for many years. It has been both a critical and commercial success. Although there are perhaps one or two clichés near the beginning, Arrival is far more sophisticated than the average film about aliens visiting Earth. There is an unusual depth and intelligence throughout, as themes of love, grief, memory and the passing of time are explored. What does it mean to be human, what is our purpose? The film is nicely paced, the award-winning music is suitably haunting, there is often a sense of magical wonder. Leading actress Amy Adams is outstanding.

Directed by Dennis Villeneuve, Arrival is an adaptation of a 1998 short story Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Amongst many other things, it explores the idea that language determines thought and perception. The concept of linguistic relativity has been linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first published in 1940 by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”) have explored similar territory. I had never come across Chiang before but one review had this to say about him:- “If there is a single recurrent theme in Ted Chiang’s work, it’s the attempt to square the circle between human fantasies of belief, and the perceived certainties of a rational, scientific worldview. There’s a strong sense in Chiang’s work that he sees conflicts of faith v reason, or freedom v determinism, as illusionary. That if we can simply see clearly enough, all conflicts give way to harmony. Chiang’s rigour and logic take him to a point of mysticism.” (1.)

After a brief but important introduction, the film begins in the style of many other science fiction films about aliens landing on Earth. The spaceships hover in twelve locations around the world and there is worldwide panic as humanity wonders what to do next. Some strange sounds are recorded at the spaceship that has arrived in Montana and the American government calls on linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to lead an investigative team. “You approach language like a mathematician”, Ian says to Louise at one point.

To the accompaniment of a drone that would not be out of place in a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, Louise and her crew make their way down a tunnel in the nearest alien spaceship. This begins a series of attempts to communicate with the Heptapods, as the aliens become known. They are more interested in visual communication rather than sound.

IdentifyingLogograms

In Arrival, each logogram is divided into 12 sections, just like an astrological horoscope. As a person learns the alien language, their perception and experience of time is altered.

For astrologers, this is where it starts to get really interesting. In reference to the twelve spaceships, we have already been told that the twelve fit together to form a whole. The aliens now gradually begin to communicate by drawing a series of circular puffs of smoke in mid-air, each of them containing specific visual blobs that carry highly complex information. These circular patterns bear a striking resemblance to horoscopes, both visually and in their function. The alien language of the Heptapods is nonlinear, with no beginning or end – the whole of a particular sentence or idea is communicated at once, not in a progressive order. The past, the present and the future are presented as one.

Louise and her team set about examining the meaning of the circles, as do investigative teams in other countries. Problems emerge when different conclusions are drawn about exact interpretations of one particular message. Does it mean “Give technology now” or “Use weapon now” and is this a threat of some kind? This leads to a global crisis point and the final scenes of the film, when it becomes clear that Louise’s perception of time and reality has become altered by learning “The Universal Language”.

Researching on the internet, I have not been able to find any acknowledgement of astrological knowledge in relation to the film or the original story. It has been suggested that the alien circles may have been inspired by a Zen calligraphic symbol. Presumably, the number of striking similarities to astrology must therefore be a co-incidence. A visual language based around circles and symbols, a language that communicates complex information and changes our perception of time, a language which when learnt can change our experience of what it means to be human in the world. That certainly sounds familiar to serious astrologers! See this excellent film and draw your own conclusions, or lack of them.

  1. “Ted Chiang, the science fiction genius behind Arrival”, The Guardian, 11th November, 2016.

The original version of the above article appeared in the March/April 2017 of The Astrological Journal, the flagship bimonthly magazine of the Astrological Association.