Arrival and the Science of Language

The movie, Arrival, popped up in stores this week and I hopped right out to buy it. This film was one of a number of excellent sci-fi/fantasy flicks from this past Christmas season and well worth the ticket price. The trailers for Arrival were so low key that at first I wasn’t all that motivated to shell out cash to see it. However, once in the theater and drawn in by the intense music score, written by Johann Johannsson, I was captivated. This drama deserved the immersive big screen and great sound system rarely found outside of theaters.Image result

Like so many great sci-fi pieces, Arrival not only engages the audience with thought-provoking ideas and visual impressions, it also features a social commentary. In this case, it focused on the power and problems of communication, particularly for a warlike species on this small, green planet.

(Spoiler alert) The story flows through the life of Louise Banks (Amy Adams from Man of Steel), a linguist with the talent to see past words in attempt to fathom true meanings. This becomes critical if a person thinks about how something like “tool” could also be interpreted “weapon” or more broadly as “ability” if the conversation is limited in vocabulary. Thus, the complexity and specificness of language, often a great factor for writers, becomes a huge problem when talking to another race that has no concept of your language. This particularly becomes true when discussing where you are spatially as well as in time.

When twelve alien ships park themselves across the globe, Banks is recruited along with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner of Avengers fame) by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, Star Wars Rogue One‘s Saw Gerrera), the leader of the American group tasked with trying to determine the motives of the aliens on the ship located within the US. Their jobs, as team directors, are to find some way to communicate with the silent and patient visitors. This task is enormous, and at first, multiple countries share information as each have their own experts working to decode any meaning or purpose of the aliens’ presence. Eventually fear and paranoia settle in as the countries break away from the unified group and threaten to attack the spaceships.

One critical factor to understanding the movie is the idea that when you immerse yourself in a language, it reshapes your thinking. The given example is that you might start dreaming in that language. Anyone who had to cram for a foreign language test in high school or college might relate to this. I certainly remember dreaming in bad, faltering German. Miss this point in the movie, and the resolution will be difficult to follow.

The film starts off with domestic scenes of Banks’ life and these memories keep cropping up throughout the film. What seems to be the obvious timeline at the beginning becomes more confusing as the film goes on. Towards the end, the scenes reflect her mind jumping around from family memories to the present time quite a bit, but this is done on purpose. First, the movie is being told in retrospect, a factor the viewer may forget in the middle of the action. Secondly, the audience sees the events through Banks’ perspective and her confusion on what is real and now, and what is not.

Arrival is not as splashy or visually stimulating as Passengers or Dr. Strange, but it is still well worth viewing. It holds what I believe is a realistic account of how we humans might react should twelve ships suddenly appear and park themselves on our globe. Having watched it twice now, I discovered hints and new meanings that became clearer now that I knew the ending. The science is not as hard to understand as Interstellar and yet it still provides enough introspection to consider this a classic first-contact tale up to the standards of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Based on “Story of Your Life,” the film is nominated for eight Academy Awards mostly in technical fields and has also won 33 other awards so far.  If you love great, thought-provoking drama, then this tale is for you.

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