Hannah’s Arrival, The Alcoholic’s Grace: A Theoretical Review of Arrival as It Pertains to Alcoholics Anonymou

By Eric Robert H.

SPOILER ALERT: In an effort to draw comparable conclusions from the film’s screening this article will divulge the story as it pertains to my translation as a recovering alcoholic. This article has no intention to infringe upon any copyrights or trademarks.



The previews for the feature film Arrival were released almost a year prior to its theatrical debut and upon viewing I knew the film would draw me in with incredible rapture. The International Movie Database (IMDB) summarizes the story, “When twelve mysterious spacecrafts appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.” (2016) Overarching themes of discovery, courage, the human spirit, reason and power lace the film with a post-modern fabric requiring a keen attention to detail. The protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) guides the audience through the characterizations of her superior Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), her colleague and future spouse Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and most importantly the archetype of innocence, her daughter Hannah (played by various actors). As interaction among the characters is depicted, the story cuts through time and space like a wormhole. I had to watch the film multiple times with pen in hand to not only establish the audience’s perspective in time and space but also take note of the extensive use of communication studies as Louise ascends to the role of heroine.

A palindrome is “a word, verse, sentence or number that reads the same backward and forward” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/palindrome). In the film, Louis explains to her daughter that the name Hannah is one of power because it is in fact a palindrome, representative of the heptapod (alien) language she is tasked with translating. That name, Hannah, stood out to me as a Biblical reference and upon inquiry I learned it is a Jewish name meaning grace: simple elegance or refinement of movement. Like Hannah, the acronym AA is also a palindrome. The similarity brings relevance to the nonlinear totality upon which the film plays out. It is reminiscent of a circle with points intersecting its borders. A triangle or pyramid inside of a circle or sphere, edges meeting edges. The logo of AA depicts separation within a whole connection.

A groundbreaking discovery is made when Louise provokes the heptapods to write their language. Rather than words, logograms are displayed. The use of a logogram allows a single symbol to communicate deep, complex meaning – just like the logo for AA. Logograms like words are symbols, representing shared understandings. Those of us in recovery understand one another with a single word – sobriety. A single word conveying lifetimes of meaning and thus rendering understanding which is the objective of communication. The newcomer’s pain and our stories share common pitfalls as well as a single triumph. “I don’t drink,” now a testament that I’ve been brought closer to God than ever before. It’s a statement of solidarity rather than a debilitating confession of isolation.  Just as Hannah battles “a rare disease that is unstoppable” so do members of AA.

The rising action of the film is Louise’ race against the doomsday clock to translate and bridge communications among human and extraterrestrial parties. Upon analysis she determines that the heptapod logograms are “free of time”. The alien language is represented in ‘nonlinear orthography” meaning the rules that dictate their language are holistic and transcendent rather than metered by measurements of time. Louise and Ian discuss the Sapir-Whorf Theory which is the hypothesis that language not only influences thought and perceptions, but may also be responsible for what we are capable of thinking (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=you%20are%20what%20you%20speak&st=cse, www.sheknows.com). I relate this theory to the negative, destructive self-talk produced by alcoholism. The disease of alcoholism constructs a self-loathing narrative within its host/ victim, negating natural coping skills and leaving them with an inability to stop drinking if left untreated. Fortunately, AA submerses the alcoholic into a new culture, teaching our wet minds a new language, thus changing our perception of reality. The awe-inspiring power of AA is comparable to Louise’ influence as a linguist and her ability to change the narrative of humanity’s introduction to the foreign bodies that conflict throughout the film.

The necessity to negotiate, just as the alcoholic does with himself, presents Louise with another theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is a scenario where cooperation and trust wins as blind pursuit of self-interest loses (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/prisoner-s-dilemma.html). AA’s survival is dependent upon AA unity. The program requires one alcoholic to work with another – cooperation and trust win. The alcoholics self-interest, “self-will run riot” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p.62), has proven a loss spiritually, mentally and physically. The prisoner’s dilemma is not explicit in the film but director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer made sure to explain a zero-sum game. According to Collins Dictionary, zero-sum game is “a contest in which one person’s loss is equal to the other person’s.” (2017) Sponsorship is a zero-sum game. The sacrifice and loss of free time on the sponsor’s side is matched by the social gain and understanding given the sponsee.

I was compelled to root for Louise as she transforms into a communication heroine by what Bishop T.D. Jakes might describe as the act of rising up and coming out (“Worship Connects Us”, 11/26/2017). Louise’ decision to “rise up and come out” is exemplified upon her entering a single pod extended from the alien’s ship and joining them aboard. Louise had to make herself vulnerable, take a risk and do what no one else would in order to gain the understanding and acquire a solution. Her being aboard the ship, beyond the barrier that initially separated the two species, brought her to a state of weightlessness. She was set on an equal plane with no gravitational advantage or disadvantage. The protagonist was suspended in refuge. This is equivalent to alcoholics entering the rooms of AA and participating in a meeting. Upon returning to the terrestrial plane, Louis carries the message, “Use weapon”. Obviously at face value this message is threatening, but further investigation reveals that the symbol for weapon in the heptapod language is identical to ‘gift’ – “Use gift”. Alcohol threatened our lives: a weapon of mass destruction. AA changes that weapon into a gift that unifies us. Funny how the symbol takes on a new meaning, a new cause and a new effect.

Louise’s acquisition of fluency in the heptapod language grants her the ability to see the future (Sapir-Whorf Theory). SPOILER ALERT: All this time, the audience thought we were flashing back in review of Hannah’s childhood when in actuality the film flashes us forward revealing what is to come of her short yet evasive and meaningful life. Some of us have been advised to “play the tape” when tempted to drink and we conclude that the result of such drink would be nil. We play the tape of sobriety and though the journey of life now extends much longer, narrower and still grieved with pain, we are willing to endure because it is a good fight of faith worth fighting. Now purposed to resolve the rising conflict, Louise states, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads; I embrace it and welcome every moment.”  

As a member of AA, I could not agree more. See, the weapon of language given to Louise opens time. It unlocks the closed circuit. Alcoholism, a cyclical cycle that has no cure, that is unstoppable, can in fact be arrested. The promises of AA allow the newcomer to perceive time the same way as the old-timer otherwise known as a survivor. Therein we have a reason for unification, a reason to work a program together.

Upon further analysis of character names I found the palindromic theme reinforced as the conception of Hannah is revealed. Her origin like ours required a ‘mom’ and dad’. Both of these words, these symbols of maternity and paternity are examples of palindromes. I probably got way too into this film’s dissection but as a Bachelor of Arts in Communications I discovered that Louise spelled backward is Esioul audibly similar to ‘soul’. Hannah’s father is introduced and characterized as a scientist named Ian- a symbol very similar to ‘I am’. Exodus 3:14 reads “And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.” So for the sake of my argument, let’s refer to our protagonist as ‘Soul’ and her significant other as ‘I am’. In the concluding scenes of the film, Soul embraces I am saying, “I forgot how good it felt to be held by you.” She had never been held by him before, however now that she knew her future she was penitent to have ever gone without him.

Alcoholics Anonymous requires a single penance of temperance. In that inaction, a covenant, a bond, an embrace is formed between us and a Higher Power of our own understanding. Prior to getting sober, “I forgot how good it felt to be held by” God. He’s given me a gift, a new language. That language is spoken and symbolized by abstinence from alcohol. This immersion into a new language changes how I see life. Just as the Sapir-Whorf Theory hypothesizes, my thoughts and perceptions are influenced by my language. The symbol I did not know, the sobriety I did not practice, left me unable to understand a future without alcohol. There was no future in my eyes because I thought I could not bear to live in the present; all I knew was my past and my perception was defined by it. Nowadays I’m having whole conversations in a single word, sober. I thought the film was about the arrival of the aliens but now I know it’s about the arrival of hannah: the arrival of grace.

Grace /ɡrās/

the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.