To me, science-fiction is not about special effects or giant battles between forces of good and evil. Science-fiction is about using speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition.
– Ted Chiang
here was a time when I used to watch a lot of movies. Being trilingual, I'm used to watching French, English and Hindi (Bollywood) movies. Nowadays, watching a movie to me feels like going on a blind date. You never know if she is gonna be "the one" or just another encounter. I remember the days when we used to go to the local video club to rent movies. Now, it's much more convenient to have access to a ton of movies on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon etc. Yet, it's so hard to choose a movie and hope for the best.
I watch movies rarely now and that also when it's highly recommended. I usually look at online reviews before allocating two hours of my (not so precious) time. Arrival is one of the movies that caused me to hesitate a little. I mean, don't get me wrong, I adore science fiction but I also love a good story. Based on my past experience with bad plots and nasty special effects, I'm a little bit picky when it comes to alien movies. But Arrival was distinctly different and just blew my expectations. After having seen it, I put a lot of thoughts into the plot and its ending. What captivated me the most about Arrival is the director's ability to use the movie's timeline and twist it. In other words, the director clearly demonstrated his power of narration to manipulate the audience by using the movie's timeline not as a linear construct but as a tool for deception.
Warning!! Spoiler ahead.. Scroll at your own risk
The movie begins with Louise (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah who becomes sick and dies at a young age. This incident gives the impression that Louise is a grieving mom who holds a grudge against reality. She develops this kind of black and white personality and goes through her days without any emotional attachment. The story takes a turning point when twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft appear at separate locations around the Earth. U.S Army officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) and linguistic expert Louise to find out why the aliens have come. He is reluctant before selecting Louise since he has another option on his list, a linguist named Danvers.
Dr. Louise Banks: Before you commit to him...ask him the Sanskrit word for "war" and its translation.
Colonel Weber chooses Louise instead of Danvers by showing up at her house in the middle of the night with a helicopter squad. I was a bit confused as to why he made that choice. Danver's translation of the Sanskrit word for war was "an argument" whereas Louise said "it means a desire for more cows." A comment I found on Reddit stated that "Danvers was a good translator, but he was more literal in his translation, while Louise took into account the cultural context, which made her translations more accurate." Colonel Weber reveals his predicament. He cannot rely entirely on science or language to demystify the presence of the aliens. Hence, he requires both Ian and Louise for the job.
Louise: Language is the foundation of civilization, it’s the glue that holds everything together, and it’s the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
The chemistry between Louise (Amy Adams) and Ian (Jeremy Renner) is quite interesting. When Ian first meets Louise, he casually uses a quote from her book to express his disagreement from a scientific perspective as opposed to a linguistics expert. He argues that science is the foundation of civilization, not language. Their opposing views is quite fascinating considering that they fall in love later in the movie. It got me thinking that most people are busy looking for sameness in a relationship rather than appreciating the differences. Their relationship to me represents the interdependence between language and science, philosophy and reality and emotion and cognition.
Let's Talk about Language
When they get to the base camp where one of the spacecraft has landed in US soil, Ian seems very excited whereas Louis is overwhelmed by the nature of the situation. She goes at a slower pace trying to process everything that is happening. For Ian, this represents the greatest scientific discovery in history. As the story progresses, Ian realizes that Louis is not merely a linguistics professor. She perceives language as a mathematician. Her approach to understanding the aliens begins to bear result sooner than expected compared to others before her. The aliens are called Heptapods because they are seven-legged creatures. Okay! Now we are getting into the realm of science fiction.
Ian: There's no correlation between what a heptapod says and what a heptapod writes. Unlike all written human languages, their writing is semasiographic. It conveys meaning; it doesn't represent sound. Perhaps they view our form of writing as a wasted opportunity, passing up a second communications channel. We have our friends in Pakistan to thank for their study of how heptapods write. Because, UNLIKE SPEECH, A LOGOGRAM IS FREE OF TIME. Like their ship or their bodies, their written language has no forward or backward direction. Linguists call this nonlinear orthography.
There is this scene where Ian tells Louise about an idea which claims that "if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain." Louise mentions about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that "an individual's thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that a person speaks." The movie actually centers around this hypothesis. However, not all linguist agree on this but I'm sure it must have caught a lot of attention to be featured in Arrival. I do believe that language influences how an individual perceive his surrounding or engage with the world. The way I see it, language is just sound which shapes our reality in so many ways. We are only making up the meanings in our head. Suppose, someone speaks to us in a language that we do not know, all we would hear is sound without any meaning attached to it.
After their second meeting with the heptapods, Louise starts to have visions of a little girl and herself being the mom. This makes the audience think that she is having flashbacks from memories of her past. However, she looks confused and does not know what to make of it. Maybe the audience is meant to go through the same reactions that Louise is experiencing onscreen and it's up to us to figure out what's going on. To be honest, I thought those scenes were flashbacks instead of flashforwards.
The movie becomes more dramatic when one of the alien's writing translates into "offer weapon." This raises tension among the authorities and soldiers. However, Louise wants to have another session with the heptapods to clear any misunderstandings in the translation. Meanwhile, in a televised statement, general Shang, chairman of the people's liberation army, states that, "the aliens have 24 hours to leave Chinese territory or face destruction." He urges other world leaders to unite with China and take a similar stance. The world is on the brink of civil wars at various locations. Pressure is mounting for Colonel Weber to take a drastic measure.
It's only later that Louis finds out that the writing (mistranslated into weapon) actually meant "gift". The Heptapods came to earth so that humans can learn their language. They came to help humanity, for in 3,000 years they will need humanity's help in return. By using their language as a tool, they can access that dimension of time which is yet to happen. In other words, they can peak into the future. Louise has a direct interaction with one of the heptapods and she learns that their language changes humans' linear perception of time, allowing them to experience "memories" of future events. She also realizes that the little girl from her vision is her own daughter from the future. To sum it up, Louise uses her new translation skills to save the world. Achievement unlocked!
Louise: The weapon (= gift) is their language. They gave it all to us. If you learn it, when you REALLY learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. But time is not the same for them. It is non-linear.
It's rare that we see a movie with a plot like Arrival. In that sense, it is different from the 'traditional' sci-fi movies that I'm used to. It also makes me question the nature of superhero movies where only those who possess supernatural abilities have the privilege to save the world. Here, we have an 'ordinary' woman who gets to put her professional skills into extraordinary use to achieve something beyond her imagination. Louise uses language and communication as a key to stop a world on the verge of war and anarchy. We can all relate with her throughout the movie. Her courage, fear, curiosity, empathy and determination gives a sense of realism to the viewer.
Louise asks Ian: if you could see your entire life, from start to finish, would you change it?
Ian: you know I've had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn't meeting them. It was meeting you.
Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve. It is based on the 1998 short story, "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. I would definitely call it a masterpiece because it challenged my idea of science fiction. Arrival is also an inspiration for linguistics majors. It underlines the importance of language and it's intricacies. It does an excellent job in portraying how humans would typically react in a real life scenario (not that aliens are real.. Are they?? 🤔). Arrival is close to what I call 'realistic science fiction' and that is what makes it unique from other movies of the same genre. For sci-fi fans this is a must watch!