Film Review: Arrival Poses Some Interesting Questions About the Nature of Language and Thought

By on March 29, 2017

Note: Hey guys, Adam here! So we’re trying something different for this post. This is another contribution from the prolific Trent Fowler (see his excellent post on Elon Musk here) and for the first time on The Bioneer, it’s a review! Sometimes a book or film can pose some interesting questions that help us reflect on ourselves in new light. Arrival seems to be just such a film, as Trent outlines eloquently here. Let me know what you think of including this kind of content on the site along with the usual fitness, training, self-development, productivity and technology posts!

Be sure to check out Trent’s own site Rulers to the Sky and read up on his STEMpunk project. Enjoy!

Warning: This review contains some spoilers for the film.

Arrival Review

Despite being an enormous fan of science fiction I find I rarely enjoy science fiction movies. My hypothesis for why this is that the strengths of SF as a genre simply don’t translate very well to screen. SF is an ideas-driven enterprise, and ideas tend to be easier to capture with words than with images (obvious exceptions like scientific illustrations and bar graphs for data sets notwithstanding). The result is that we have a sprawling, insight-rich literary tradition on one hand a comparatively cheap cinematic offering dominated by monster movies on the other [1].

(Compare the rigorous, detailed examination of intelligence enhancement in Ramez Naam’s Nexus to films like Lucy or Limitless, the former of which I found so insulting I never finished and the latter of which was quite entertaining but had plot holes so big you could drive a starship through.)

Arrival, by contrast, is a refreshing departure from this trend. Louise Banks is a linguist at the top of her field, tapped by the American military to act as translator when twelve alien spaceships touch down at various locations on Earth. The seven-armed heptapods inside the sleek, black craft appear to want to communicate, and gradually Banks is able to learn the rudiments of their complex written language. As she does so she begins to glimpse her own future, including the birth and tragic death of her yet-to-be-born daughter.

While these developments unfold translators working at a site in China misunderstand the heptapod phrase ‘use weapon’ as a threat, and begin cutting off all communications with both the aliens and the rest of Earth. Spurred by fear a group of vigilante soldiers detonate explosives inside the heptapod craft in Montana, prompting the aliens to withdraw higher into the sky and refuse to allow any human scientists inside.

Any, that is, except Banks, whose diligence and smarts have won their trust. In an act of defiance she reopens talks with the heptapods and finally discovers that their language is meant as a tool or a gift, not a weapon, and will confer upon any who learn it the same power she has gained: to see the future as one sees the present. This gift is meant as an investment, as one heptapod reveals that thousands of years hence their race will require humanity’s help.

Simultaneously a compelling first-contact story, a riff on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and an exploration of the complexities which attend making difficult choices with advance knowledge of their outcome, Arrival is a slam dunk across the board.

As everyone ought to know, if you happen to be the lucky person who makes first contact with an alien race the most important thing you can do is to establish that you’re a sentient being. The agreed-upon protocol is to begin scratching prime numbers or the fibonacci sequence in the dirt, one at a time. This strategy conveys no information beyond “I’m intelligent”, but hopefully that will be enough to prevent you from being an alien h’ordeuvres.

Gold Disc Voyager

Establishing a basis for communication beyond that is fairly difficult, and it’s worth pondering the best way to go about it. In Peter Watts’ Blindsight, the vampire Jukka Sarasti gets the job done with pain. Two alien ‘scramblers’ (think: giant starfish) are placed in different cages. One is shown a single image and the other is shown a menu containing the same image among several others. Then, the aliens are blasted with microwave radiation until they communicate with one another enough for the second alien to choose the image seen by the first. Every click and movement is recorded throughout to allow for later analysis and translation.

Because the heptapods are explicitly trying to cooperate with humans the process isn’t as ghoulish as it is in Watts’s vision, and Banks is able to build up a sophisticated understanding  of written heptapod through the time-tested method of starting with points and grunts.

A number of deep questions are suggested by the film, though not explored in any great detail. The most obvious is the vaunted Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the basic categories of a person’s native language shapes the way they see see the world. In addition we are left to wonder about:

  • The impact of future knowledge on free will (can you really be said to make a free choice when you already know what’s going to happen?);
  • The implications of future knowledge on physics (would knowing how things turn out be enough to count as a temporal paradox?)
  • The best way to handle radical uncertainty in the face of agents with superior technology (should we try desperately to cooperate or assume hostility and strike the first blow?);
  • How radically different alien psychologies might be;

But the film succeeds on a human level as well. It’s a rare thing for me to find the emotional aspects of a story just as fascinating as the philosophical ones, but I couldn’t help but wonder how payoffs for decisions would be affected by an ability to see the future. Would a friendship or relationship be worth the trouble if I knew it would one day end? Should I have the right to bring a person into the world knowing that their demise will be painful and tragically early?

All in all, highly recommended.

[1] Not that a good monster movie can’t be fun once in a while.

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