'Arrival' and the Lost in Translation

Amy Adams in Arrival (2016)

Arrival reveals how it often takes something totally unexpected -- something alien to us -- to make us realize that we don't always know what we think we know about ourselves.


Director: Denis Villenueve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG-13
US DVD Release Date: 2017-02-14

Ludwig Wittgenstein anchored his philosophy on the premise that all philosophical problems are problems of language. Arrival, Denis Villenueve's eighth feature film, broadens Wittgenstein's thesis: the stakes of human existence find their roots in language.

The events of Arrival are set in motion when 12 alien "pods" descend to Earth, hovering somewhat ominously over disparate global locales. What unfolds over the course of the film's 116 minutes is a philosophical meditation in the guise of an alien invasion film. Villenueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer's movie -- based on a short story by Ted Chiang -- is "science fiction" in the same way that many of Ray Bradbury's best short stories are: concept is kept to a minimum, and used primarily to emphasize human struggles. Here Villenueve is in the legacy of recent science fiction films like Danny Boyle's Sunshine, where the mysteries of outer space are used as metaphors for philosophical and personal issues.

It doesn't take long for Villenueve to push past the expectations of the alien invasion formula. The alien ships look like elongated stones. The visitor's speech consists of bone-rattling drones, the kind one might hear on a Sunn 0))) album. Their written language features complex circle shapes, differentiated by jagged patterns, that are made by the aliens shooting a wispy black ink-type substance from one of their seven legs -- the source of their human-ascribed name, heptapod. By way of personality (in the commonly understood sense) and cultural history, little is learned about the heptapods by the time the narrative is wrapped up. What is revealed is that the ultimate goal of the heptapods was to bring their language to humans. (Note: some spoilers ahead.)

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an academic linguist who works to figure out the heptapod language at a site in Montana where one of their vessels hover, becomes the vessel of the heptapod's gift. In doing so, she attains a skill unique to the heptapod language: the ability to see into the future. Heptapod language has as one of its many features a non-linear conception of time. As Banks learns the language, she begins to have visions that at the start of the film look like flashbacks of her life with her daughter, who falls ill and dies as a teenager. Once Banks cracks the code of the heptapods, however, it is revealed that she is seeing visions of the future.

In this way, Arrival is not really a movie about aliens. Arrival reveals how it often takes something totally unexpected -- something alien to us -- to make us realize that we don't always know what we think we know about ourselves. As governments across the globe attempt to decipher an encounter they've never had before, the language immediately turns to combat. Banks presages this oppositional mindset in one of her academic books, which is read aloud by her physicist colleague Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner): "Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict." By merely descending to Earth, the heptapods reveal that, after all this time, humans are still translating themselves to people who speak the same language.

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Banks, calm and rational, is forced to reason with the likes of a concerned military colonel (Forest Whitaker) and an antsy CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), who are waiting for the explosions that happen so regularly in alien invasions films. English is only superficially a shared language between them. "We're a world with no single leader," Halpern (Stuhlbarg) says, "It's impossible to deal with just one of us." His statement reveals a logical leap that Banks spends the whole movie trying to get all those around her to understand: before one can deal with someone, they must learn to speak with them.

Arrival is, despite the language used within and about the film, not about invasion; it's about a re-introduction to the already familiar. Humans use language so frequently that the unusual if not alien aspects of it are rarely examined. The heptapod language is unlike anything the humans of Arrival have ever encountered, but the value of the encounter with heptapod language is that it forces humans to step back and look inward, to reflect on the uncommunicative dimension of our communication. The aliens are language incarnate. The humans can only discourse with the heptapods through a glass wall, behind which the creatures lumber around in an opaque gray space. This semi-impenetrable space of the heptapods is perhaps the finest cinematic rendition of W.V.O Quine's theory of "the indeterminacy of translation".

The unglamorous message of Arrival is that philosophy of language will save humankind -- not war, not geopolitical posturing, but language. One of the remarkable narrative turns in the movie occurs about halfway through, when it becomes clear that the real villains of the film are not the mysterious heptapods, whose intentions are still uncertain, but rather the humans who from the outset assume the worst of their interstellar vistors. A group of soldiers responsible for patrolling the area around the heptapod vessel in Montana, against the will of their commanding officers, plant a bomb in the vessel that kills one of the heptapods. The governments of China and Russia build up their militaries around the vessels and threaten to blow them up if they don't leave, choosing to interpret the heptapod's mere presence as an act of aggression.

In this way, Arrival considers a topic that has been mined by many films and works of literature before it: the struggle of the encounter with the Other. The unprecedented nature of the heptapods' arrival explains the human bewilderment to these interstellar visitors at first, but over time the gradual paranoia that builds up about the heptapods -- despite no visible sign of aggression on the part of any of the 12 vessels -- reveals that the very presence of otherness is enough to trigger humanity's worst impulses.

Because of its choice to emphasize communication and reconciliation over violence, Arrival was predictably seen as a timely film in the age of Trump. In her review of the film for its theatrical release, our own Cynthia Fuchs writes, "…Arrival's arrival now, at this post-election moment, [is] more striking than it might have been. Or, if we’re thinking in circles, maybe this arrival was always in motion. So many individuals and communities are afraid. How can we understand, grieve, respond, and resist?"

Kate Mason argues that while Arrival was made well before the election, the image of the heptapod vessels -- so stunningly rendered by cinemaphotographer Bradford Young -- has an unmistakable post-2016 election resonance: "The precarious, unpredictable nature of the spaceship and its proximity to our home suggests the period between the election and the inauguration: the monolithic specter of Trump and Co. is here and shocking in its proximity, yet not fully revealed or realized."

For Esquire, Matt Miller writes that Arrival "sends a message" to people like Donald Trump: "Clarity of language is as important as the stakes of the content, whether it be between world leaders, humans and intergalactic visitors, a candidate to a reporter, or a text message to your mom. A vague statement or a misconstrued phrase could have irreparable consequences."

Given the nuance and beauty of Arrival and the blunt vulgarity of Trump, these interpretations are compelling, if obvious. Although Arrival does take into account political considerations, especially the growing multi-polarity of China, Russia, and the United States, the core story of the film is primordial, a pre-politic taking place in the midst of a highly complicated web of politics on Earth. Banks' task -- one that would prove difficult for a team of academics, let alone one -- is to make the generals, politicians, and strategists return to the basics, and figure out how to get a baseline level of communication. It takes nothing less than a stunning and somewhat logically troubling deus ex machina for Banks to avert global (and potentially interstellar) war.

While Arrival's centralizing of language is a unique and daring move, it's worth noting that the theoretical framework for Heisserer's script and Chiang's short story is not without controversy. The discoveries Banks makes of the heptapod language are rooted in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which gets directly named in the film. The theory, so named for two American linguists who developed early versions of the argument, maintains that language determines the structure of an individual's thoughts. Sapir-Whorf is also referred to as "linguistic relativity" for its insistence on thought's innate linkage to a particular language. Many proponents of the theory maintain the language / thought connection deterministically, meaning that language fixedly bounds thought, whereas other iterations describe an influence of language on thought. Whether the account is totalizing or contributory, Sapir-Whorf firmly maintains that language shapes our thoughts in inescapable ways.

John McWhorter, in his book The Language Hoax, argues that the ideas behind Sapir-Whorf, while a kind of intellectual "catnip" for how it posits "that each language is its own mind-altering cocktail", are "founded on a quest to acknowledge the intelligence of 'the other', which, though well intentioned, drifts into a kind of patronization that the magnificent complexity and nuance of any language makes unnecessary." McWhorter explains that Whorf's aims were "laudable", in that "he wanted to show that people dismissed even by the educated as 'savages' in his time were as mentally as developed as the Westerners are." Unsurprisingly, that good intention became quickly co-opted by individuals who essentialized other groups on the basis of the Sapir-Whorf theory. The goal of cultural appreciation has a sordid history of success in the Western world, particularly because the statement, "That culture just thinks differently than we do", is not as neutral as it looks.

Falling prey to the trap of cultural superiority is one problem with Sapir-Whorf. Factually, the theory has also been tested considerably. Here McWhorter points to a foundational case of Whorf's: the language of the Hopi people of Arizona. Whorf suggested in developing his hypothesis that the Hopi language had no conception of time. Not long after he suggested this about the Hopi people, it was revealed that "Hopi marks time just as much as anyone would expect a language to." Furthermore, McWhorter writes, "Attempts over the next few decades to reveal Native Americans as cognitively distinct from Westerners because of mental filters exerted by their languages never bore fruit." Arrival clearly utilizes not only the Sapir-Whorf theory but the specific case study of the Hopi people in its narrative, swapping the Native American tribe out for a group of heptapod aliens.

Yet Arrival isn't in the business of reviving Sapir-Whorf. As great science fiction does, Arrival takes a scientific theory and uses it for its own storytelling ends, as a kind of philosophical wind-up toy for its plot. One can -- and, based on the literature, should -- question Sapir-Whorf as a scientific hypothesis while also appreciating how Villenueve and Heisserer take a theory and transform it into a story that is, at its core, about recognizing the good in others. Banks represents Sapir-Whorf in its best-case scenario; the trigger-finger ready Halpern is the embodiment of how easily that theory can go awry.

In a popcorn alien invasion flick, the tension between the humans and the aliens would be the focal point of the movie. When the hero is introduced, she has a "backstory", but the emphasis is placed on the "back" part of that phrase; such background information is meant to be an impetus for the hero to save the day, and nothing more. In Arrival, the backstory is the "forward-story" once Banks takes in the heptapod way of perceiving time. But more importantly, the "forward-story" is central to the film, not secondary to it.

Arrival is a film featuring aliens that is fundamentally about what it means to be a human being. The speculative and science fiction elements of the plot end up not so far-fetched at all; too often, it takes something beyond our earthly perception to remind us of the importance of communicating.

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