Science fiction is never really about the future; it’s always about us. And Arrival, set in the hardly distant future, looks like a bespoke movie for 2016, hitting theaters just days after the most explosive election in American electorate memory.
But the story Arrival is based on – the award-winning news Story of your life by Ted Chiang – was published in 1998, almost two decades ago, indicating that its central themes were brewing long before this year. Arrival is far more concerned with the deep truths about language, imagination, and human relations than any political moment.
Not only that, but Arrival is one of the best films of the year, a moving and captivating film with striking twists and images. It deserves serious treatment like a work of art.
Arrival is smart, twisted and serious
The accents of “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter are superimposed on the foregrounds of Arrival, which is the first clue of what’s about to unfold: this particular track is ubiquitous in the movies (I can count at least six or seven movies that use it, including Shutter island and this year Innocents) and is, in my opinion, the saddest song in the world.
The bittersweet sensation instantly sets in throughout the film, like the last hour of twilight. Quickly, we learn that Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) suffered an unthinkable loss, and it works like a prelude to the story: 12 locations worldwide. No one knows why. And nothing happens.
As the governments of the world struggle to understand what this means – and the people of these countries respond by looting, joining cults, even while leading Mass suicides – Dr Banks receives a visit from Military Intelligence, in the form of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), asking for his help as an expert linguist to investigate and attempt to communicate with the intelligence behind the landing. She arrives at the site with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a prominent quantum physicist, to begin the mission. With the help of a cynical agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), they get dressed and enter the craft to see if they can make contact.
Better not to say more about the plot, except that it’s a pure pleasure to feel it unfold. Director Denis Villeneuve’s most visionary film to date (Prisoners, Sicario) and scripted by horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Curfew), its pace is slower than you might expect from an alien invasion movie, almost sparse. For a film with so many complicated ideas, it doesn’t waste more time on exposure than is absolutely necessary. Arrival is serious and cleverly designed, moving like a Rubik’s cube in a scholar’s hand, nothing makes sense until all the pieces suddenly come together. I heard gasps in the theater.
Arrival is interested in how language shapes reality
The premise of the film is based on the idea, shared by many linguists and philosophers of language, that we do not all experience the same reality. The songs are the same – we live on the same planet, breathe the same air – but our perceptions of these songs change and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and to each other. .
For example, there is substantial evidence that a person does not really see (or perhaps “perceive”) a color until their vocabulary contains a word, attached to the meaning, that distinguishes them from other colors. Not all yellows are the same, but without needing to distinguish between yellows and language tools to do so, people only see yellow. A color specialist at a paint manufacturer, however, can distinguish virtually hundreds of colors of white. (Check out the paint chip aisle at Home Depot if you’re skeptical.)
Or consider the phenomenon of words in other languages that describe universal feelings, but can only be articulated with precision in a certain culture. We can intuitively “feel” the emotion, but without the word to describe it, we are inclined to group the emotion with another under the same title. Once we have developed the linguistic term for it, however, we can describe it and feel it as distinct from other adjacent shades of emotions.
These are simple examples, and I don’t mean that the world itself is different for people from different cultures. But I to do mean to suggest that reality – what we perceive to include the facts of existence – takes a different form depending on the linguistic tools we use to describe it.
Adopting this framework does not necessarily mean that one of us is more correct than others on the nature of reality (although that can certainly be true). Instead, we do our best to describe reality as we see it, as we imagine it. This is the challenge of translation, and why the literal translations Google can perform don’t go beyond basic sentences. Learning a new language at first is just putting together new vocabulary and alternate grammar – here’s the word for chair, here’s the word for love, here’s how to make a sentence – but ultimately, as any bilingual person can attest, it is to imagine and perceive the world differently.
This is the basic idea of Arrival: That if we were to encounter a culture so radically different from our own that simple questions that we take for granted in the context of the world as it is were drastically altered, we couldn’t just collect data, sort the grammar, and to draw conclusions. We should either absorb a different way of seeing, despite our fear, or risk everything.
To underscore this point, Dr Banks and the entire operation experience constant communication disruptions within the team and with teams in other parts of the world, who are unsure whether the information they gleaned during their own visits to the pods should be kept. owner or shared.
Arrival it’s more than talking to each other. These are the roadmaps we use to navigate the world
It’s not hard to see where this leads, I imagine – something about how if we want to empathize with each other, we have to talk to each other, and that’s how the human race will survive.
And of course.
Corn Arrival also layers some important side notes that add nuance to this easy on-the-go. Because it’s not just deciphering the words someone else says that is important: it’s the whole frame that determines how those words attach to meaning. We can technically speak the same language, but functionally be miles apart.
In the film, a character notes that if we were to communicate in the language of chess – which operates in battles and wars – rather than, say, the language of English, which is geared towards expressing emotions and ideas, then what we actually say and do would change dramatically. that is to say that the dominant rule metaphor because the way that beings interact with each other and the world is different. (Some philosophers speak of “language games”.)
That counts for the plot of the movie, but more broadly – since it’s science fiction, and therefore actually about us – it has implications. Language is not just about figuring out how to say things to someone and make sense of what comes up. Language has consequences. Integrated into words and grammar is action, because the metaphors we use when trying to make sense of the world tell us what to do next. They act like little roadmaps.
You have sympathized with someone not when you hear the words they say, but when you start figuring out what metaphors motivate them and where it conflicts or agrees with yours. I found myself thinking a lot about reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Foreigners in their own country, who is up for a National Book Award this year and describes the global metaphors (Hochschild calls them “deep stories”) that low-profile groups of Americans – in this case, the West Coast urban liberals and rural Tea Partiers of Louisiana – use to make sense of the world. She doesn’t try to explain anything. She’s trying to figure out what makes people walk in such drastically different directions and have opinions that baffle their fellow citizens.
Arrival suggests that our mental roadmaps require constant adjustment
Part of the challenge of pluralism is that we don’t just walk around with different ideas in our heads, but with entirely different maps to get from point A to Z, with different roadblocks and different recommendations for which road is best. . Our A’s and Z’s don’t even match. We don’t even realize that our own cards are missing pieces that others have.
Presumably one of these cards is better than the others, but we didn’t agree on how we would decide. So we keep bumping into each other going in opposite directions on the same highway.
Arrival part of this insight in an unmistakably puzzle-solving science-fiction direction, improbable in the best possible way. But it clearly shows that communication, not battle or combat, is the only way to avoid destroying us. Communication means not only wrapping our heads around the terms we use, but the actual framework through which we perceive reality.
And this is really hard. I don’t know how to fix it.
In the meantime, however, good movies are a place to start. Fortunately Arrival is an extremely well-crafted film, with complicated and unpredictable visuals that embody the main point. Nothing flashy or explosive; somehow I found myself thinking about 1970s sci-fi movies, or Danny Boyle’s best parts of 2007 Sunshine, who founded its humanist history in deep silence.
The film ends on a different note from the linguistic note – a note much more related to loss and a nostalgic question about life and risk. This may be Arrival‘s the biggest weakness; the emotional punch at the end is toned down a bit as it feels a bit rushed.
But even this conclusion points to the possibilities of the reshaped human imagination. And this week, in particular, you don’t have to talk to an alien to see why that’s something we need.