How a Linguist Saves the World in “Arrival” (*Minor Spoilers)

Over the weekend I saw the movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams as a linguist who essentially saves the world from itself.

*Minor spoilers, not major ones, to follow. :)

thumbnail_24771Arrival is a first contact movie most of all. When 12 mysterious spaceships show up on various parts of the globe, each housing two aliens, it’s impossible to communicate with them. The military wants to know why they’re here — but to understand something that complex in a conversation, you need to build a vocabulary with them.

That’s where Amy Adam’s Louise comes in. Along with scientist Ian (Jeremy Renners), she heads into the ship and approaches the aliens — a pair of “heptapods,” as they come to be called, who boast seven limbs so they look a bit like giant, dark walking hands. Louise and Ian can’t physically touch the aliens, as they’re blocking by a window. It seems the aliens have done this on purpose so that the atmosphere on the humans’ side of the window is safe for them to breathe.

arrival-5Adams is so fantastic in a role like this, where she first expresses a desire to do this job — and then trembling fear at actually meeting the aliens. It takes her a couple of tries meeting them to figure out how she’ll approach speaking with them; after her first attempt, in which she does almost nothing out of shock and a total lack of ideas, she asks her military contact Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) if she’ll be fired now.

But as is the case with many introverts who are passionate about their careers, once she has an idea, her confidence returns. She decides the best way to communicate with the aliens is through writing, partly because even if she starts to comprehend their huge, whale-like noises, she won’t be able to make those sounds herself. In writing, she can be more personal. The visual is the way to go here.

arrival gif.gifWriting “HUMANS” and then her name and Ian’s on a whiteboard, she points to herself and Ian until she thinks the aliens understand. Pointing at the aliens, they conjure an inky circle in the air, then another — it’s their names, she realizes. For the sake of pronunciation, Ian successfully suggests they call them Abbott and Costello.

Colonel Weber wants to fast-track the conversation at this point. The only question he and the rest of the world leaders have is what is the aliens’ purpose? But Louise explains that to get there, they still need to build that vocabulary, so the aliens understand what intention is, what a question is, etc. Perhaps all of this is Linguistics 101 for someone in the field, but for me (and probably most audiences), it’s amazing to listen to Louise work her way through a simple sentence from the perspective not only of a linguist, but also of the aliens themselves.

arrival2.jpgWhat follows is a story not only about deciphering these circular symbols the aliens write, but also how to interpret them. Since there are 12 spaceships around the world, other translators are working with their own local aliens and coming up with dangerous ideas. As seen in one of the movie trailers, the word “weapon” that some believe the aliens are saying could be “tool”; why assume the aliens even have a word for weapon, when the jargon with them is still so limited?

While world leaders want answers and the military wants action, Louise fights to ensure they are communicating accurately. When the potential for war is imminent, Louise believes it could all be a misunderstanding. Then, the hard part in all this is keeping the entire world united. Are the aliens dangerous? Perhaps the most dangerous thing is the potential for humans to misinterpret them, based on our own desire for war.

Without giving away the full story, I’ll just say that the rest of the film is a whirlwind as Louise starts to not only penetrate their language, but also think in it herself. The way the heptapods see the world — specifically time — is entirely different than how we view it, and their language is the key to opening minds to their way of seeing. Louise is the first to practice this type of thinking, and it makes for a surprising ending. In fact, it feels like the whole film has been pushing towards this spectacular finale, from its very first moments.

arrival-6Overall, I’d say I was most surprised by the melancholy tone of this movie. I was expecting it to be a quieter science fiction film, as if focuses on language over action, but it was poignant and even sad in parts. I don’t say that as a bad thing; it was a refreshing change and fit this film’s story extremely well.

What I enjoyed most about the movie is Adams’ performance. I love that she is an actress who is able to excel in so many roles that suit her age and intelligence. Because she has a quiet aura, the role of Louise feels like a perfect fit for her — and it gives her power. How often do we get to see a cerebral, soft-spoken character change the world? Through her work, she’s able to do this — but it also requires a real passion for communication, as she has to fight at times to be heard above the sounds of impending war. She’s never passive; her role requires intense action at times.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, obviously I highly recommend it! I saw it in XD, but I wouldn’t say it’s the type of film you need to see in theaters — it would make a great at-home rental or purchase if you can’t get out to the cinema for it. Better yet, it’s a brainy treat for science fiction fans, but you don’t have to be into sci-fi to see this. I’m already recommending it to people who aren’t into science fiction but appreciate a memorable story, which is exactly what this is.

— Ashley

4 thoughts on “How a Linguist Saves the World in “Arrival” (*Minor Spoilers)”

  1. Definitely want to see this, and it’s good to hear you enjoyed it. It appeals to me on a variety of levels — as a sci-fi fan, as a fan of big ideas, and as a fan of language.

    I also like the idea of stories where the hero is more of a brainy type. We definitely need more stories where ideas save the world, rather than brute strength. That’s something I really liked about Hoshi on Star Trek: Enterprise (even if they didn’t utilize her enough).

    That said, I may way to see it until it’s on Netflix or something. As you say, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you need to see in the theatre. But it’s definitely on my “must see” list.

    1. Yes I agree so much that we need more heroes like that! It’s pretty refreshing to see, and this movie struck me as being realistic in that sense… If we make first contact, we need communication first, maybe not “action”. Hope you enjoy it when you do see it. :)

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