Arrival is a stunning science fiction movie with deep implications for today – Vox
Science fiction is never really about the future; it’s always about us. And the arrival, set in the barely distant future, feels like a movie tailor-made for 2016, hitting theaters just days after the most explosive election in memory for most of the American electorate.
but the story’s arrival is based on ted chiang’s award-winning novella story of your life, which was published in 1998, nearly two decades ago, indicating that its central themes were hatched long before this year. the arrival is much more related to deep truths about language, imagination and human relationships than to any political moment.
not only that, but the arrival is one of the best movies of the year, a moving and gripping movie with surprising twists and visuals. deserves serious treatment as a work of art.
the arrival is intelligent, sinuous and serious
max richter’s play “on the nature of daylight” tensions over the opening shots of the arrival, which is the first clue to what is about to unfold: that particular clue is ubiquitous in the movies (I can count at least six or seven movies that use it, including this year’s Shutter Island and April Fools) and it’s, by my reckoning, the saddest song in the world.
The bittersweet feeling instantly settles over the whole film, like the last hour of twilight. Quickly we learn that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has suffered an unthinkable loss, and that functions as a prelude to the story: One day, a series of enormous pod-shaped crafts land all over earth, hovering just above the ground in 12 locations around the world. Nobody knows why. And nothing happens.
As governments around the world struggle to figure out what this means, and as people in those countries react by looting, joining cults, and even committing mass suicide, dr. Banks receives a visit from military intelligence, in the form of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), requesting her help as an expert linguist in investigating and attempting to communicate with whatever intelligence is behind the landing. She arrives at the site with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a noted quantum physicist, to begin the mission. With the help of a cynical Halpern agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), they suit up and enter the ship to see if they can make contact.
It’s best not to say much more about the plot, except that it’s sheer delight to watch it unfold. The most visionary film yet from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and written by horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), its pace is slower than you’d expect from an alien invasion movie, almost skimpy. for a film with so many complicated ideas, it doesn’t waste any more exposure time than absolutely necessary. the arrival is serious and cleverly designed, moving like a rubik’s cube in the hand of a wise man, nothing makes sense until all the pieces suddenly come together. I heard gasps in the theater.
arrival is interested in how language shapes reality
The film’s premise revolves around the idea, shared by many linguists and philosophers of language, that we don’t all experience the same reality. the parts are the same: we live on the same planet, we breathe the same air, but our perceptions of those parts shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and to others.
For example, there is substantial evidence that a person does not actually see (or perhaps “perceive”) a color until their vocabulary contains a word, associated with a meaning, that distinguishes it from other colors. not all yellows are the same, but without the need to distinguish between yellows and the linguistic tools to do so, people only see yellow. however, a color specialist at a paint manufacturer can distinguish between virtually hundreds of colors from white. (Go check out the paint sample aisle at home depot if you’re skeptical.)
Or consider the phenomenon of words in other languages that describe universal sentiments, but can only be accurately articulated in some culture. we can intuitively “feel” the emotion, but without the word to describe it, we are inclined to lump the emotion with another under the same heading. however, once we develop the linguistic term for it, we can describe it and feel it as distinct from other shades of adjacent emotions.
These are simple examples, and I don’t mean to suggest that the world itself is different for people from different cultures. But I do mean to suggest that reality — what we perceive as comprising the facts of existence — takes on a different shape depending on the linguistic tools we use to describe it.
Embracing this framework doesn’t necessarily mean that any of us are more right than others about the nature of reality (although that may certainly be true). instead, we are doing our best to describe reality as we see it, as we imagine it to be. This is the challenge of translation, and why the literal translations that Google can do don’t go beyond basic sentences. At first, learning a new language is just about collecting new vocabulary and alternative grammar: here’s the word for chair, here’s the word for love, here’s how to make a sentence, but eventually, as any bilingual can attest , is about imagining and perceiving the world differently.
This is the basic idea of the arrival: that if we were to find ourselves with a culture so radically different from our own that simple matters that we take for granted as part of the world were radically changed, we could not simply collect data. , classify grammar and draw conclusions. we would have to absorb a different way of seeing, despite our fear, or risk it all.
to underline the point, dr. banks and the entire operation constantly experience communication breakdowns within the team and with teams in other parts of the world, who are unsure whether the information they collect from their own pod visits should be kept proprietary or shared.
arrival is more than just talking to each other. these are the roadmaps we use to navigate the world
I guess it’s not hard to see where this is going: something about how if we want to empathize with each other, we need to talk to each other, and that’s the way the human race will survive.
and, of course.
but the arrival also includes some important side notes that add nuance to that easy conclusion. because it’s not just deciphering the words another person says that’s important: it’s the whole frame that determines how those words are fixed in meaning. technically we can speak the same language, but functionally be miles apart.
In the film, one character notes that if we were to communicate in the language of chess — which operates in the framework of battles and wars — rather than, say, the language of English, which is bent toward the expression of emotions and ideas, then what we actually say and do would shift significantly. That is, the prevailing metaphor for how beings interact with each other and the world is different. (Some philosophers speak of this as “language games.”)
This is important for the plot of the movie, but more generally, since it’s science fiction and therefore about us, it has implications. language is not just about understanding how to say things to someone and attributing meaning to what comes back. language has consequences. embedded in the words and grammar is the action, because the metaphors we use when trying to make sense of the world tell us what to do next. they act like little road maps.
You have empathized with someone not when you listen to the words they are saying, but when you begin to determine which metaphors make them work and where they conflict or agree with your own. i found myself thinking a lot about this reading of arlie russell hochschild strangers in their own land, which is nominated for a national book award this year and describes the broad metaphors (hochschild calls them “deep stories”) that discrete groups of americans, in this Case in point, urban West Coast liberals and rural Louisiana Tea Party goers use it to make sense of the world. she is not trying to explain anything. she is trying to figure out what makes people walk in such drastically different directions and have points of view that confuse their fellow citizens.
the arrival of
suggests that our mental roadmaps need constant adjustment
Part of the challenge of pluralism is that we not only walk around with different ideas in our heads, but with completely different maps to get from point a to z, with different obstacles and different recommendations on which way to go. the best. our a’s and z’s don’t even match. we don’t even realize that our own maps are missing pieces that others have.
presumably one of these maps is better than the others, but we haven’t agreed on how we would decide. so we keep bumping into each other going in opposite directions on the same road.
Arrival takes off from this insightin an undeniably sci-fi direction that is a little brain-bending, improbable in the best way. But it makes a strong case that communication, not battle or combat, is the only way to avoid destroying ourselves. Communication means not just wrapping our heads around terms we use but the actual framework through which we perceive reality.
and that is very difficult. I don’t know how to fix it.
In the meantime, though, good movies are a good place to start. Fortunately, Arrival is a tremendously well-crafted film, with convoluted and unpredictable visuals that embody the main point. nothing flashy or explosive; In a way, I found myself thinking of sci-fi movies from the 1970s, or the best parts of Danny Boyle’s 2007 The Sun, which grounded her humanistic story in deep stillness.
The film ends on a different note than the linguistic one: one much more related to loss and a melancholy question about life and risk. this may be the biggest weakness of the arrival; the emotional impact of the ending is somewhat reduced because it feels a bit rushed.
but even that conclusion goes back to the possibilities of the reformed human imagination. And this week especially, you don’t need to talk to an alien to see why that’s something we need.