In this essay published in November 2016, William Dass explores the themes of communication in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Arrival stunned my wife and I on opening day. We loved it to pieces. Denis Villeneuve crushed every aspect of this story based on Ted Chiang’s science fiction novella The Story of Your Life. It left us feeling the same way we did when we saw The Martian. Both films invigorated our sense of optimism for the future of humanity. But, Arrival also left me feeling a touch of, well, melancholy. Don’t get me wrong, I think it may be among the best movies of the year. I think that has mostly to do with my finding it impossible not to contextualize the movie with the events of the week. I’ve spent quite a bit of time processing the implications of the election results and working out what’s likely, what isn’t, and what to do about all of it. I was disheartened by the results and for the first time in eight years, I’ll have a President whose views regarding the security and welfare of our country differ wildly from my own. I suppose my feeling of shock comes from being totally unprepared to deal with the perceived loss of influence. Even from the trailers, it was obvious Arrival would be exploring those fears. And, having seen it, that got me thinking.
Heads up: Some of this conversation will contain mild spoilers for the film. I strongly encourage you to go out right now and see this in the theaters. This will still be here when you get back. Be sure to check out the Film School Rejects review of Arrival.
These are our tools: Hands, pens, pads, language.
Arrival’s opening sequence made for an unexpected punch in the gut. I went in expecting to watch the gloriously filmed love child of Sphere and Contact. In the first ten minutes of the movie, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) delivers, raises and buries a child. It was a beautiful, self-contained story of love and loss packaged as its own short film. I don’t mind sharing my own human reaction to this which was just a river of quiet tears. It was not at all what I was expecting. What made it doubly impactful was that for the next hundred minutes or so, Villeneuve referenced, manipulated, and expanded our understanding of that opening encapsulation of a slightly broken human circle of life. Context and message are inextricably linked in communication. Arrival is easily one of the most masterful demonstrations of that concept in film.
Let’s get into it. The show kicks off when twelve giant, alien monoliths appear across the globe and hover in place. Louise Banks, a doctor of linguistics and expert translator, is recruited by Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) to help the US Government communicate with the alien ship – dubbed shells – in the United States. On the journey to Montana, the location of the U.S. based shell, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner). A linguist, a theoretical physicist, and an Army Colonel walk into a TOC (Tactical Operations Center) together. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
One of the main challenges the characters address is how to communicate with an alien species. Is communication as simple as having a translator app on your phone? The answer is a resounding no. And, Arrival is self-aware enough to take a few pot shots at how some other science fiction flicks have handled these exchanges. I have to imagine this film is a huge validation for all the linguistics students out there who have probably fielded a bunch of questions about why they didn’t just learn a language. It isn’t so easy to just create a handy reference guide which say “x” sound equals “y” sound. Language is more complicated than words. Communication is words. But, also meaning. And context. I tell you I could hear the linguistics folks cheering.
Throughout the film, Colonel Weber pushes Louise to explain what she’s doing. It’s their interaction that I’m most interested in here. This is the segment of the story that should hammer home the idea that communication is not simply a matter of sharing the same lexicon. Have you ever looked at a piece of text and realized that while you know all the words being used you have no idea what they are being combined to mean? This is the story of Colonel Weber and Louise. He’s brought her along for expertise, but he really doesn’t understand what she’s doing. More than that, his frame of reference is completely different from hers. Her presence is defined entirely by her past learning as applied to a very specific problem: how to ask a question and understand an answer. His presence is defined by a much wider scope of problems which encompasses the security of the TOC and assessing the threat posed by the shell to the United States. His interest is not just in learning how to talk to them, but establishing the nature of their intent and assessing their capabilities to act on that intent.
What is the significance of this? Colonel Weber’s frame of reference predisposes him to be impatient with her process. Regardless of whether he finds her work valuable or nonsensical, he’s going to be inclined to rush the effort. More than that, his Washington D.C. based leadership almost certainly considers establishing communication an incidental detail to assessing whether these technological wonders are capable of exterminating us and whether their pilots have the capability and will to do that. This creates a notable amount of stress for Colonel Weber. The way that he handles that is what makes me appreciate the detailed character work going on in Arrival.
At every interaction where it is obvious his superiors have been leaning on him to expedite the process, he slows down the moment and pushes Louise to help him understand. It’s that interaction that is the key to the whole movie. These mutually interested parties speak the same language and come from the same place. They have the same fears for the safety of their fellow citizens. Communication between these two should be shorthand, fast and direct, right? It isn’t. Despite all those similarities, they are still coming at this from different angles. And, despite sharing the same dictionary they really do have a different vocabulary. If you’ve ever worked any where for a chunk of time, you’ve probably realized somewhere along the way that you’ve developed a vocabulary and short hand reference system with your team. The military is very much like that. But, so are academia, office cubicles, and service jobs.
Colonel Weber is a leader who is looking to give his staff the opportunity to contribute according to their expertise. Louise interprets his need to know more as him questioning her competence. He counters that concern by pointing out he has to explain the problem to people who aren’t here. He’s giving her the chance to argue directly for the value of the decisions she’d like to see this team make. He’s giving her the chance to provide expert advice on the direction they should go.
This is where Arrival gets heady. A major component to the plot of the film involves the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or linguistic relativity. See gang, communication is way more than just words. Because I wrote that sentence and I’m still having a hard time with it. So, what does it all mean? Basically, there’s a strong version and a weak version of the theory. In the strong version, language literally determines how you think. Think about the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Well, in the strong version of the hypothesis, language comes first and defines your perception. In the weak version of the hypothesis, it’s much less a chicken and egg scenario. It’s more that language can influence our perception. So, sharing a language does not require the sharing of a culture.
The point that I’m trying to draw out here is that even when the biggest concerns align you with someone, it still takes attention and patience to ensure that you are speaking to each other meaningfully. Even when we are speaking the same language, the influence of our culture and the context of the conversation can work against mutual understanding. Our aversion to or embrace of particular words and concepts can begin to normalize tinking.
Then, what’s the “so what” with all this? Basically, if people are not born with their culture, which seems self-evident, then the learning and use of language must impact the way they look at the world. Culture and language are linked. The act of learning a new language requires you to consider a new frame of reference. Considering a new frame of reference necessarily impacts your current frames. Learning a language can change the way you think. And that, in a nutshell, is the conceit of Arrival.
This is what science fiction does best. It gives us this fantastical event, an encounter with an alien species, and allows us to talk at great detail and length about our own challenges. Arrival has been stuck in my head since I saw it for this reason. And I’ve been stuck on the results of the election and what it all means. Watching this movie has given those thoughts relief.
There’s been smart conversation about whether being shocked by the results means you weren’t aware of the extent and impact of bigotry in America. I’m not sure if I agree with that position, but I confess I was shocked. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. Bigotry is a problem in our country and I assure you these are not its death rattles. That said, I’m not overly surprised the Republican candidate won an election after two terms of a Democratic President. I mostly feel like Doc Brown in Back to the Future when Marty told him Ronald Reagan was President. Donald Trump?
I’m skeptical that the election means sixty million Americans are not-so-secretly misogynist fascists. This is not a criticism of that fear, though. I’m a white straight dude. It’s different for me. If you’re Muslim, or a woman, or LGBTQ, or an immigrant: I don’t think you need to account for your fear for your future. Remember one thing: sixty million Americans also voted against Donald Trump. You are not alone.
I don’t know how many of those who voted for Trump voted for him because of the bigoted winking and how many voted for him because they were looking for a change. I don’t know how many people who voted for Clinton actually agree with my positions or if they just don’t like Republicans. I don’t think I can know. I do know that short of an actual revolution, which is antithetical to the democratic process, the only way to prevent what I am afraid of and change the way this conversation is going is to engage.
The political communication in our country is broken. We don’t know how to talk to each other about the things on which we disagree. We aren’t speaking the same language anymore. Not even close. What are the last three bipartisan things our government has accomplished? I can’t name them. We haven’t even been able to pass a budget for years. And, somewhere mixed up in that, we’ve lost the ability to discern between considered points on which reasonable people can disagree and nonsensical things that just feel right. Is that because sensible contrary positions aren’t out there? I don’t know. I just sort of assumed for a long time that they weren’t. I am a part of the problem.
My plan for the next two years is to practice talking constructively with people I disagree with politically. Instead of snark, I’ll try engagement. It’s important to take the time in those small moments to have a productive conversation about how and why we disagree. It isn’t a vow to convert everyone to my thinking. It’s just a promise to myself to engage honestly. To be open to those moments where I’m encountering a sensible, contrary opinion. I will also not assume I am on the same page as someone simply because they voted the way I did.
So we are full circle. At the beginning, I mentioned I wasn’t sure what to do about this sudden perceived loss of control. Well, that’s what Arrival helped crystalize in my mind. Engagement is essential. When we are afraid, the only thing we can control is destruction. I can destroy something without the compliance of that thing. It’s damn near impossible to build something without that thing’s cooperation. Let’s put it in human terms. I can destroy a partnership on my own. But, I can’t make one by myself.
Patience. Awareness. Engagement. Communication. Meaning. Context. These words will be my guide. If you haven’t, go and see Arrival in the theaters. It’s gorgeous and powerful.