Movie Review: Arrival

Arrival is a unique new science fiction film about alien contact based on the 1998 Novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Highly critically acclaimed, Arrival differs from most other movies of its type in that this is a movie, even more so than Contact, about language.

Spoilers below.Arrival shows the…well, arrival of the alien Heptapods, seven-legged squid-like beings, in twelve huge spaceships called “shells” scattered all over the world. Paranoid Earth governments, fearful of the Heptapods’ intentions, are struggling to decipher their almost incomprehensible language to figure out why they are here, and they call in the brilliant linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help.

I have an interest in linguistics, the study of language, and I’ve made a few steps towards designing alien languages of my own for my fiction, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the movie. Louise spends much of the movie trying to interact with the Heptapods and navigate the fuzzy world of translation and interpretation to make sense of what they’re saying, all while dealing with the mysterious dreams she keeps experiencing. The ambiguity of language is a major issue–not mistranslations, but things lost in translation or that have multiple meanings, and the movie also took great pains to replicate how a real linguist works.

With the Heptapod language itself, things get weirder. Their sentences are written in circles, with no beginning and no end. They see time completely differently than we do because they don’t view it as linear, and this turns out to be a product of the language itself.

The film revolves around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an old principle in linguistics that basically says your language determines how you think because you can only think thoughts that you have words for. Today, the effect of language on thought processes is actually considered to be pretty weak, but the idea is still widespread in popular culture. George Orwell used the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to design Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a language in which expressing dissident views is impossible. Later, Robert Heinlein used the concept in Stranger in a Strange Land in a way that closely prefigures Arrival. In his novel, humans who learn the Martian language also “learn” the Martian’s powerful psychic abilities.

In a similar way, as Louise learns the Heptapod language in Arrival, she begins to see time from their point of view, to the point where she can see the future. As a physicist, this is pretty silly. However, as a linguist, it’s intriguing, taking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the extreme and raising a lot of philosophical questions about free will in the process. And the ending, where all the pieces suddenly fall into place, is really well done.

However, in my opinion, the movie is marred by the attitude of the military and government officials who, for one, don’t seem to care about anything but the Heptapods’ intentions and, for another, don’t seem to understand anything about languages, despite the fact that most military officers are multilingual. In one of the most egregious exchanges, Colonel Weber demands to know why Louise is teaching the aliens such simple words, and she has to explain to him, the importance of understanding the basics so that there are no misunderstandings. I can understand the paranoia to some degree, especially in the face of ambiguous alien messages. However, the military people are simply holding the Idiot Ball too often for me to take them seriously, and it throws off the whole story, unfortunately turning what could have been a great film into merely a good one.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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