Arrival is sci-fi tale told with an air of intense realism. Alien objects appear around the world and humans are “invited” to check them out and try to figure out what’s going on. The aliens make no hostile moves, but tensions and miscommunication between the nations of Earth escalate nonetheless. But, this isn’t really a film about aliens, it’s about communication, linguistics and the relationship between language and perception.
If humans who speak different human languages perceive the world in subtly different ways, and if learning a new language can change your perception, what changes to perception might we experience if we were to learn a completely alien language?
I am utterly in love with this as a concept for a film. It is fascinating to me how people classify their world and how language is integral to this. We learn the word for something at the same time we learn what that thing is, and so the two things, word and concept, become inseparable. We think in our language.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and is therefore hyper-aware of language. She takes on the job of trying to communicate with the aliens, and this is explored in very real detail, interesting in itself as a “what if?” exercise. However, it is the exploration of the further implications regarding perception that make this film truly thought provoking.
Other events happening in the background of the film explore the idea that careless communication does damage, whether it’s the omission of information, or the choice of one word instead of another. It’s particularly poignant after the events of 2016 where fake news, echo chamber social media and misrepresentation of facts have been hot topics. In Arrival, the simple presence of the alien objects causes a mass breakdown of society and it’s completely believable because it’s based on phenomenon of communication that we see every day.
Every aspect of this film explores a different idea of communication and language. The film opens on a montage of a little girl growing up and then becoming sick and dying as a teenager. Because of our understanding of the language of film, our instant assumption is that this is backstory. It’s in the past. Later we’re forced to question that assumption. So, the film even goes so far as to be a commentary on the language of film.
In the space of a feature film, you are lead on an introductory journey into the subject of linguistics and communication, including being pulled into the dialogue yourself when prompted to confront your own assumptions. All the while you’re following engaging, human characters (including the aliens). There is emotional and intellectual stimulation on multiple levels. Arrival is simply an outstanding piece of film making.
Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It is out in cinemas now.