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Communication Breakdown: How To Say Hello To Our Future Alien Overlords In 'Arrival'

The critically acclaimed science fiction film is a meditation on the indubitable connection between language and reality
by Karl R. De Mesa | Feb 4, 2017
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Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Addams) is distraught. The military have just arrived by helicopter at her uncannily upscale house (for a linguistics professor, that is, but the girl must have tenure for such a posh crib) and the overbearingly creepy Colonel Webber played by Forest Whitaker tells her that he went to another guy in Berkeley and that he’d answered what she wanted the Colonel to ask him about the translation for the Sanskrit word for “war” is.

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“He said it means ‘argument’,” shouts the Colonel above the din of rotor blades. “What do you say?”

And Dr. Banks, in her pajamas, facing down the Last King of Scotland, all six feet plus of fatigues and disdain for civilians, in the cold dead of night, replies without stutter: “A desire for more cows.”

That’s all the Colonel needs to know. With it she’s won the battle against the other linguistics guy, that the glove of academia she’d thrown down wasn’t even a contest. Sanskrit for war? Here it is with clarity and mustard for nuance. Woman’s got balls and skill.

He tells her to pack her bags. She’s going to meet the aliens. 

On one level Arrival is this adventure of an elite team of Americans led by linguist Dr. Banks and physicist Dr. Ian Donnely, brought together by the military to investigate and try to communicate with one of 12 mysterious spacecrafts that have touched down across the globe.

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On another level, it’s a love story. And a third layer, likely the most important one, is that it is a meditation on the limits and empowerment of communication, and how such clarity can bring about apotheosis.

Based on a great story by Ted Chiang, the director responsible for this touching monstrosity of science fiction is Denis Villeneuve—who’s also responsible for Sicario and the underrated Prisoners. The adapted script is masterful, the acting is nuanced and pitch perfect (special props to Jeremy Renner for reigning in his superhero bombast and playing this on in grace notes of subtlety), and the gorgeous SFX all serve a purpose for story.

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My only nitpick is that quite a few of the speculative science concepts have obvious holes in them, distracting when you realize how the two main narrative elements in Louise Banks’s story connect but do not explain their connective glue. A second watching cures some of this but also heightens the mistakes, of how getting from point A to point B was glossed over for dramatic purposes (specially the flashes of the child we see in the opening sequences).

The main conceit of sci-fi storytelling is to spark wonder and possibility, and if it succeeds in the “what if?!” then all other considerations and critique are secondary. This is after all a movie about aliens, language, and time. So let’s meet it half way.

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The producers and marketing people at FilmNation may have done a quick sleight-of-hand with the trailer that makes this cerebral movie appear to be an action/thriller with fighter jets and much kaboom and fighting space invaders. There’s none of that. It’ll probably fool some geeks raring for another ID4 iteration.  

So we have Dr. Banks who’s been hired by the US government to go inside one of the spaceships that have arrived, and to get in contact with the aliens inside said ship and to try to translate and understand the purpose of their visit.

The crucial thing about Dr. Banks’s job is that, while the 12 spacecraft remain silent about their purpose, even as each location from Russia to America has regular “consultations” with the alien heptapods (whose lower halves form seven tentacles in a cool homage to the Cthulhu mythos) on their purpose on Earth, mankind teeters on the verge of global war.

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Which is understandable. In one VO, Renner’s Dr. Donnely comments about the aliens’ seemingly random pattern of locations for the 12 ships: “Are they scientists or tourists? If they’re scientists, they sure aren’t asking that many questions.”

The Chinese, for one, aren’t so keen on letting the aliens just hang ominously in the sky. The movie also continually reminds us that there are other military minds keen on a show of force, just to recap for the aliens whose planet they’re on. Silence can be more unnerving than overt threats, the movie tells us, even as it dishes out imagery about eyes and opening lids—the spacecrafts look like upended contact lenses for one.  

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“Language is the first weapon drawn in conflict,” says Dr. Banks. As her team understands more about how to communicate with the heptapods, they also find out two things: one, the spoken language of the aliens (apparently spliced animal sounds ranging from whale calls to elephant trumpeting, according to the prod notes) cannot be deciphered or spoken by the human tongue; two, the aliens do have a written language that can be studied, but that it does not bear any relation to their spoken language.   

The humans decide to call them logograms, comparatively speaking. Just like written Chinese, where the symbol stands for the word, it doesn’t stand for a sound. The alien logograms resemble circular coffee stains made on paper, with curls and burrs and whisks, and the heptapods secrete some black in from their tentacle legs to “write” them in mid-air. They are elegant and complex and unsettling. Just like an extraterrestrial language should be.

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Misinterpreting them is highly likely, Dr Banks reminds the Colonel, and will likely prove dangerous. As the team rushes to find the right correlation to ask the aliens their question of “What is your purpose on Earth?” Banks uncovers the pitfalls of communication with another civilization even as they bust out the digital index cards for faster visual to visual talk with the visitors.

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See, when Banks finally pops the big question about why the aliens are here, despite her hesitation with months of studying the logograms, the response is ambiguous but menacing. Someone leaks what the aliens “said” to the Twitterverse and abstract and menacing eventually becomes aggressively obtuse. Global fear and alarm ensues.

What a catastrophe. Oh, humanity, trolls will be your undoing.

How many times have words failed you? That the meaning of terms simply does not translate the way you feel, that adjectives do not suffice, that certain concepts should have their own terms cobbled together from various languages and are therefore a mongrel portmanteau that hews closer to meaning?


Bilinguals who grew up speaking two languages have a much easier time acquiring a third. But if you’re a native speaker of one and learn another much later in life, your brain is rewired but finds that choosing to switch to the second language can be exhausting, like a long trek for your tongue—even if scientists say this is necessary if the nerves in your brain are to work faster and grow stronger (the fancy term is “better neuroplasticity”). Like choosing an OS every time you boot your language center.

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Language is one of our first technologies: communication with each other was always paramount. Watching Arrival, you begin to understand how language is limiting; that as much as it helps, it also cages and petrifies the mind into expressing only in its own codification.

According to recent studies by Swedish scientists, we now know that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible than monolinguals. What would the effects be on Dr. Banks if she were to be become more fluent in the alien language? A language that is entirely separate from their spoken one; at this point prompting some alien version of Statler and Waldorf to likely quip “trust humans to invent a written language entirely the same as their spoken one.”

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Why would humanity want to write down the same thing we can already say aloud? Why would we want to repeat ourselves in visual format? All good questions. Most of them even get answered in the movie.

In its most accessible form, Arrival can be recommended to sci-fi fans who can reflect on current issues and how we’ve come to this point of voluntary isolationism and “post-truth” despite smartphones, the internet, etc.

On a deeper level, Arrival joins other recent forms of entertainment, where stories about the imparting or withholding of information are set against a backdrop of science fiction with grand conceits but ultimately very human underpinnings: see, Westworld where created AI find a way to evolve and become self-aware despite being held back by programming; or Passengers, where a criminal act involving two people is kept secret against an interstellar mass migration and eventually determines the survival of the ship’s sleeping travelers.

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At its beating heart, somewhere past the halfway mark of the 116 minutes of TRT, “Arrival” dives headfirst into its crux and twist: the fluidity of time and what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

We won’t touch the aspects of time and the question of “What is the fourth dimension? And what is the fourth dimension to a three-dimensional creature?” at all, so you can keep reading and remain spoiler-free.

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So rather, let's talk about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is the idea that the language you speak determines how you perceive the world and even what kinds of thoughts you can have.

It’s been a debate among linguistic academics and the argument consists of a main line that everybody agrees on, which is about linguistic relativity, the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview, or how knowing a language helps determine how stimuli come to you. A dog barks “arf arf” because it is a dog, and a dog is an animal that has been named. Ergo, different language communities experience reality differently.

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Here’s where the line branches out and the debate becomes a sticky fight. The bigger view is about linguistic determinism, which means that your language actually fixes the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. If you can only communicate using one way then there will inevitably be failures of concepts that do not translate in your tongue, simply because there’s no word for it.

“If I taught you chess and a game that has obvious concepts of competition, then everything is tainted with a winner and a loser,” responds Dr. Banks to Colonel Webber, when he gives her the news that the Chinese are speaking to their aliens by teaching them mahjong.

In a year that’s started out full of misunderstanding perhaps we can avoid conflict by keeping communication open through the lessons of Dr. Banks and her time among the aliens?

“Arrival” opens on February 15 in Metro Manila theaters.

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