Arrival is a really strong sci-fi film that explores how we communicate with one another just as much as it explores how we would communicate with an alien species. Of course, linguistics and communication are the practical tools that the film uses to probe deeper questions about fatalism, scientific theory, and international (even intergalactic) relations.
The basic premise is that alien ships land in 12 countries all over Earth, including most of the international ‘superpowers’. Inevitably, these become military sites as humanity tries to ascertain the aliens’ purpose. The American military site recruits Dr Louise Banks, a linguistics researcher and college professor, to try and communicate effectively with the aliens so that we can answer this question.
So we dive into the complex theories of metalinguistics alongside Dr Banks. The aliens’, or heptapods’ written language is not related to their eerie spoken language – their written language is conveyed via strange, swirling smoky structures, possessing what we assume is a self-contained syntax that essentially means one thing: this is the apex of communication. A universal language, as Banks later describes it in a book she publishes in the film, it is a form of language in which no meaning can be misinterpreted, in which ideas and information are translated in a way that might as well be telepathic.
The circular symbols also carry another interesting concept, in the form of linguistics relativity – that is to say, a language’s structure affects the cognition of its users. Arrival stretches this theory past its limit, but that is the very definition of science fiction. It is done artistically and is expressed in something resembling the following: our symbols of language combine together in a linear fashion to express an idea; the circular symbols of the heptapods must be read in their entirety to mean something. The non-linear nature of their language translates to the way they perceive time – past, present, and future all become aspects of memory. As Dr Banks makes leaps and bounds in translating the language, she begins to think in this language. Following linguistic relativity, she also sees flashes of the future. It is suggested that her perception of time changes to the extent that she might never psychologically ‘exist’ in one given moment, because she can see all of her time in the same way she can see all of the meaning in a single symbol.
‘If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?’
– Dr Louise Banks, Arrival
Sadly, I am not blessed with knowledge of this language, so my blog post is slightly confusing and messy, regardless of how methodical I try to be. However, Arrival executes these ideas with great lucidity. It feels like an intelligent film, but it never resorts to elite intellectualism. Some of the concepts are challenging and require some concentration, but they are always explained in a clear way – much clearer than I have been here.
And while Arrival deals with the international ramifications of alien contact, while it deals with philosophical quanderies about free will, it still has a tiny cast of human characters that drive the story, characters that we care about. There is a beautiful balance here between the mystery of the most far-reaching things imaginable, and the comfort of the important things that are closest to home.