“Language is the foundation of civilization, it is the glue that holds people together, it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
Arrival is a science fiction movie released in 2016. I think I watched it in the theatre with some friends, but I still remember the movie quite fondly even now. Science fiction is one of my favourite genres of all time. In most of the sci-fi movies floating around, there seems to be a focus on delivering spectacle, things like cool laser guns and space battles. In Arrival, we focus on something much more subtle that we usually never see explored in cinema, which is language.
“To me, science fiction-it’s not about special effects or giant battles between good and evil, science fiction is about using speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition.” -Ted Chiang, the original author that was the basis for Arrival.
So first I’ll do a short synopsis on the story to paint a general picture of what’s going on. I'll try not to spoil key story elements, but I will be exploring the themes and the early parts of the film. So the story of Arrival kicks off when twelve alien ships enter Earth’s atmosphere, and they land in seemingly random places across the world. Funnily enough in most other sci-fi movies the aliens always seem to land in high profile American cities with recognizable landmarks such as Washington D.C or New York City, but in Arrival they landed in places like the mountain ranges of Montana, the seas of China, in Sierra Leone, and so forth. It’s a minor detail but I appreciate that they’re doing something different.
A true thing poorly expressed is a lie.
So, aliens arrive and everyone on Earth is stunned. Nations around the world scramble to the sites and establish military and scientific bases around it. Every 18 hours the alien craft opens up, and we can send in teams to try to communicate with the alien lifeforms inside it.
What we have to figure out now is why are they here, and what do they want? And are they dangerous? These questions are impossible to answer because we do not understand them, their way of communication is vastly different from our own. For most of the movie we follow Louise Banks, a linguistic professor that’s been picked by the government to help them communicate with these mysterious space faring creatures. The science/linguistic team takes slow, logical and methodical steps, taking their time to do it right. The process of understanding can’t be rushed, or they’ll risk undoing the progress they have made.
The language you speak determines how you think, it is the lens in which you can view the world.
Even though the story has aliens in it, the focus is on humanity learning more about itself, how we would react if something like this were to happen. First the nations tried to work together, but paranoia and self-preservation instinct caused many of them to withdraw and refuse to cooperate. The aliens' mere presence on Earth pushes humanity to its limits, there are riots and public hysteria. There’s conspiracies, propaganda and incitement to violence against the aliens and each other. Some nations even declared the alien’s arrival as an act of aggression, and plans to use their military against it. It is humanity’s darker base instincts, something that needs to be triumphed over. How we deal with problems and solve them through communication, not brute force.
The scale of the story is large and the stakes are high, but it still manages to feel very personal and intimate. I love the cinematography and the direction, and the great nuanced performances by the actors. They did a fantastic job with it. This movie also has a brilliant soundtrack that highlights the setting and emotions felt by the characters. Arrival is a great movie that I highly recommend you go watch.
Communication is limited by perspective, knowledge is mediated through language.