I knew I’d probably like ARRIVAL before I even saw it. A movie about a linguist trying to communicate with visiting aliens sounded right up my alley. The film is based on the short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which is also very good and provides some additional theory but far fewer dramatic elements.
Louise is a linguist saddened by memories of the loss of her daughter due to a rare incurable disease. When 12 giant spaceships descend to hover over different spots on the earth, an Army colonel assembles a team to make contact and find out what they want. Louise heads the linguist team and Ian, a physicist, heads the science team. The central challenge of the film is how do you communicate with an alien species to determine their intent, particularly when one possible intent is conquest? Even among humans, the wrong word could have huge diplomatic consequences.
The story rolls out in a fairly realistic manner. While the scientists are filled with wonder, the Army guys are always stony faced, as they keep wondering if they’re at war or not. The human population responds with panic buying and a large degree of hysteria, which results in a wave of violence, including possibly violence against the aliens. The events in the movie appear to capture the gamut of what it’d be really be like to encounter an alien civilization. The aliens themselves are terrific. Overall, the lessons of the film are 1) communication is hard, 2) communication is essential to understanding somebody different, 4) misunderstanding can lead to violence, 5) a rational approach to diplomacy gets better results than one based on fear.
The big reveal in the film is also highly interesting. I’ll spoil it starting in the next paragraph, so look away if you haven’t seen the film.
Apparently, the aliens have come to provide the gift of their language (and with it how they think and perceive reality), which allows humans to experience time in a different way. This is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic Relativity), which poses that once you start thinking in another language, the language changes your brain and results in a different perception of the world. Louise’s memories of her daughter dying aren’t the past, they’re a possible future after she marries Ian. In the film, the Chinese are about to attack the aliens, but Louise experiences a future conversation with a key Chinese general, who tells her his wife’s dying words so she can give them to him in the past and prevent him from attacking. This is pure deus ex machina, which in the arts is defined as an expected event that saves the hero from what would otherwise be a hopeless situation.
This type of flash forward story doesn’t make sense to me. Basically it says:
1. You’re about to drown in a river
2. Afterwards, you tell somebody to be at the river with a life preserver to throw you
3. You don’t drown in the river
In reality, causation would mean:
1. You’re about to drown in a river
2. You drown
3. The end
If I have it right, the theory in the story is based on the idea that time runs in both directions, so reverse causation is possible. It doesn’t make sense to me, but okay. This article voices my objections better than I can. Still, the film gets an A for ideas.
In my view, Robert J. Sawyer does a better job with the theory in FLASHFORWARD. In this novel, a CERN experiment results in everybody in the world experiencing a short period of their lives twenty years in the future. They then have to determine whether what they experience is predestined, and if they can change it, how can they change it. It’s a great story.
Similarly, after the events in ARRIVAL, Louise publishes a guide to how to speak the alien language (which helps her in the present determine how to speak the alien language, argh). Knowing the alien language presumably allows everybody to know their potential futures and change them. I’m not sure how that would be a gift. The result would be chaos. We are all interconnected, and constant decisions by everybody to optimize their futures would result in knowing your future timeline becoming meaningless, as it would be constantly changing. In the film, Louise knows her daughter will die but must decide whether to have her anyway, which she does. But if Ian had the same ability, he might decide not to marry Louise and have the baby. In the short story, another problem surfaces. Her daughter dies rock climbing and not from an incurable disease, meaning Louise could have prevented it from happening but doesn’t.
In the end, ARRIVAL is a great film on par with thinking films like CONTACT. The communication side was fascinating, but the mental time travel turned out to be deus ex machina for me.