I finally made it to the cinema to see Arrival last night, a couple of weeks after it came out to great acclaim. Promising an intelligent take on first contact with an alien species, with particular emphasis on the linguistic business of deciphering the alien language and writing system, it was a film I was very eager to see. I hesitate to call myself a linguist proper just yet, but my current research is very much on the linguistic and writing-systems end of archaeology, and I’m very interested in any film adaptations of ‘grown-up’ written science fiction (Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang), so Arrival looked to be right up my alley.
That said, some of my linguist friends were wary, fearful of how Hollywood would treat their discipline, despite the generally favourable reviews of Arrival’s linguistic content. So in the end, how did it stack up? Was it the masterpiece several reviewers have hailed it as, or was my friends’ caution justified? The answer, it turns out, is somewhere in between.
Arrival is a good film. I’ll just put that out there right at the start. I’m not going to try and be contrarian and say it’s anything other than a very well-made, interesting and thought-provoking science fiction movie. I’d whole-heartedly encourage people – including linguists – to see it, if for no other reason than that it’s the kind of film I’d like to see a lot more of. However, despite the marketing, the linguistics content (of which there is certainly plenty) is unfortunately not its strongest aspect, or, ultimately, the one it’s most interested in.
It’s difficult to go into specifics without spoiling things, but suffice it to say that Arrival is a film of two halves. The second is clever, satisfying and affecting, upending expectations and tying things up in a neat bow characteristic of the best short stories. The first half, by contrast – the half mostly concerned with the translation of the alien language – feels baggy, a little slow, and the linguistic elements don’t quite ring true. Going back to what I said in my essay on science fiction and archaeology, it feels very much like a scientist’s imagining of what arts and humanities research is like, rather than something fully grounded in research. Linguistics lecturers speak to vast lecture-halls, beginning a day’s class with things like ‘Today we’re going to learn about Portuguese, and why it’s so different from other Romance languages. Portuguese began in the Middle Ages, when language was considered an art-form…’ Maybe it’s different in America, but my linguistics education was mainly carried out in small rooms with small groups, lecturers going through the fine detail of morphology or phonology without much in the way of purple prose or rhetorical flourish. The film even seems a bit fuzzy on what exactly a linguist is – it’s never clear what exactly protagonist Dr Louise Banks’ specialism is, and the film seems to waver between envisaging her as a linguist in the sense of someone who studies linguistics and works on the structures of languages, and a linguist in the sense of someone who knows and translates foreign languages (everything from Mandarin to Farsi) for a living. Ironically, this stumble over the ambiguity inherent in the word ‘linguist’ is exactly the kind of thing Banks is so keen to avoid in her interactions with the aliens.
Which brings me to the translation itself. I don’t really want this review to be an exercise in nitpicking, but the whole method of understanding and translating the alien language doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The fact that it’s essentially being done by a single (apparently fairly junior) linguist and a physicist (who at no point does any actual physics) rather than a huge international team of the world’s best and brightest can perhaps be forgiven, as can the incredibly rapid pace of decipherment; but their method – essentially holding up a whiteboard with words written on it and pointing at things – would struggle even with the cultural and conceptual differences on earth, let alone with something fundamentally alien.
But that’s enough on the negative. As I’ve said, once the decipherment is accomplished, the film picks up a great deal, and seems a lot surer of its footing. This is where I’m going to move into slightly more spoilerish territory, so feel free to stop here.
Right. Arrival, it turns out, isn’t really a film about translation at all, so much as the effect that contact with the alien has on the human mind. It’s an internal, claustrophobic film, full of extreme close-ups and very shallow depth-of-field. The strangeness of the aliens, their fundamental otherness and the human struggle to cope with encountering that are all very well conveyed.
These are not little-green men but something far more uncanny, their half-glimpsed, octopus-cum-spindle-fingered-hand appearance recalling the eldritch extraterrestrials of Lovecraft and his imitators, while still being distinctively different and memorably odd. But the main point of the film is with the effect of the alien language itself on human cognition – the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This comes in two flavours: strong and weak. The strong theory is that language determines the range of cognition, which has now been shown to be untrue; the weak theory argues that language has an influence on how people think, but stops short of complete determinism. That is fairly well supported by evidence.
The theory has long been a favourite of science-fictional treatments of linguistics. There aren’t many of them, but almost all the ones that spring to mind deal with the idea to a large extent. Arrival is in some ways a response to Samuel R. Delaney’s 1966 novel Babel-17, which covers themes, albeit infused with a layer of Cold War paranoia. Its eponymous alien language is in itself a weapon, causing its translators through the very act of understanding it to become the agents of their alien foes.
More recently, China Miéville turned the idea on its head in his excellent 2011 novel Embassytown. Set in a long-standing human settlement on a world inhabited by extremely strange aliens with a particularly odd language, it deals with the catastrophic upheavals wrought on the aliens’ mindsets and culture by communicating with humanity.
I’m not going to go into any detail about how the Sapir-Whorf theory plays out in Arrival, because that really would be to spoil the fundamentals of the film. But I will say that it’s both fascinating in its own right and leaves you asking a number of questions of yourself.
I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang’s short story, ‘Story of Your Life’ but the friend I went with had, and the differences he cited explain a lot about the curious unevenness of Arrival. It seems that it’s mostly the second half of the film that make up the short story, with the actual business of translation considerably fleshed out for the film. On the other hand, the short story features much more maths and physics. This would seem to suggest that the redundancy of the physicist character as anything other than Banks’ unqualified assistant in Arrival and the rather scrappy and baggy first portion are problems of adaptation rather than the source material. I’ll have to read ‘Story of Your Life’ at some point and see whether that’s borne out.
So, overall, Arrival: thumbs up. Go for the linguistics; stay for the interesting meditation on how contact with the Other can change minds for the better. And hey, the world needs more of that right now.
Have you seen Arrival? What did you think? What other linguistic science fiction would you recommend (yes, I know about Star Trek’s ‘Darmok’, even though I didn’t go into it here)? Leave a comment and let me know!