Talking For Dummies
2016 was a giant leap forward. On the global front, you had Donald Trump clinch in his presidency of the United States of America, and there was Brexit. It was a turbulent year at best, but in terms of film, the scene got even messier.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was our long-awaited sequel to the Harry Potter series, Captain America: Civil War was the divorce nobody wanted, and La La Land stole our hearts. There were some questionable films which dampened the high cinematic success that 2016 gave us, but Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival can certainly count itself as one of the standouts, even in the genre of science fiction.
My hypothesis about science fiction films is that they are never just about the glamour of science. Sure, it’s fascinating to imagine what our technological world could look like in the future, although sci-fi films are not meant to wow. They are more dedicated towards self-discovery. Think Inception, Interstellar, The Matrix, Avatar, Alien… I can go on forever with naming these iconic science fiction pieces, to show that Arrival, like its genre predecessors, means to reveal something to us.
Like most planetary films, the antagonistic forces come from the aliens, sprinkled with an initial glance of curiosity. However, unlike the traditional sense, the aliens in Arrival do not come off as hostile. The beginning of the film is already written, by author Ted Chiang, and the inevitable problem is a matter of ending the story. Farcicality is the furthest reach of this film, yet a stellar performance from the actors persuades the audience to buy into the prospect. In an attempt that would make Noam Chomsky proud, the architecture of language and relationship chasms cling onto our political thought. This is a deep, moving film that hits the sensations as a work of art.
Louise Banks, professor, and (ex)mother, is ready to begin her lecture when alien spacecrafts land on Earth. Twelve of them to be exact. A wave of nonchalant hysteria hits the world, including her, and the million-dollar question is: why are they here? Apart from her glowing achievements as a comparative linguist and a cool house, Louise has nothing else to show for. The world is at loss for their course of action, and you could say that Earth sends its mightiest hero, in the form of a linguist. Together with the army guys and Ian Donnelly, a physicist. He looks and acts his nerdy part, no matter how spurious it is, using his knack for mathematical equations to flirt. Unbeknownst to the people she is working with, Louise has tragically lost her daughter prior to the alien “invasion”. It is during her Q&A sessions with the squidward aliens that cause a looming redirection into her past. Perhaps the aliens know about her deceased daughter, which would explain why their interactions consist so much of Hannah digging at Louise’s conscience.
The English language is riddled with weirdness. There’s a bunch of pronunciation rules and grammar shenanigans that no one could possibly grasp in a few weeks. That is, somewhat, the same timeline that the experts are given. The aliens do have their own calligraphy system, a bunch of rings with squiggly attachments that look more like scribbles on a notepad. It is a literal answer. The absurd part of the film is also Louise’s learning curve. In a seemingly psychedelic episode, she understands the language and cracks the message hidden beneath it. The key to it, is definitely not through brute, military force, but through spontaneity, human immediacy and frangibility.
Arrival is an exciting film to add to any director’s portfolio, a fitting work by the visionary Denis Villeneuve. In ways similar to Annihilation, the slow pace is ironic for an alien-invasion, shifting the timeline left, right and centre. Without a doubt, the film is convoluted labyrinthine, so from the first minute till the last, nothing is taken for granted. All the information is scattered around like jigsaw pieces, until the ending links everything together. Paired with Max Richter’s “On The Nature of Daylight”, the slow alien foreplay leading up to the revelation, machination metamorphosing into the actual science fiction genre. It is the journey to the final word that we are treated to, all the eerie sounds and nasty tentacles to enhance the foreplay, next to everyone, except for Louise and Ian, wearing COVID-19 hazmat suits.
Yet for all its weird atrocities, Villeneuve hides his true intentions from the audience until that same, final punchline. Political agendas and mutual trust are what prevent the humans from extracting the meaning of the twelve pods, an act that grounds the film from supernatural to real life. Whether the political metronome pendulum swings left or right, it feels as though there is a reason behind Arrival’s release just days after America’s most explosive presidential election. Language in itself, exacerbated by mankind’s cultural thoughts, is more than just a linear exposition. It is more than just about conjugating the right verbs, learning flashy vocabulary and dictating grammar.
People all around the world have different cultures, which lets them interpret reality differently. Sure, French has its direct equivalent for “I”, which is “je”. In Mandarin, the English word “pay” is translated to “pěi”, cognates as that. However, “ninety-nine” in French is “quatre-vingt-dix-neuf”, which literally means four, twenty, ten, and nine. 女 is the attachment added to female words in simplified Chinese, but the English edition of that would be adding the “ess” suffix, to form “actress, princess, hostess” etc. The point is, on a surface level, language is a means of communication, although it really is more about perceiving the world in unique ways.
How does this crash course in linguistics have to do with Arrival? One day, if it is true that aliens exist and they pay Earth a visit, it is unlikely that they will be speaking English to humans like Tony Stark famously interacted with one in Infinity War. To acquaint with a culture so radically different, is impossible to communicate with, unless there is a medium of communication. It is necessary to either teach, or absorb a whole new language, c’est-à-dire, a new way of viewing the world. Sadly in the film, Louise and the players around the world are constantly experiencing communicative breakdowns, because no one is voluntarily sharing their information. Instead, those individual pod visits are kept proprietary.
A suggestion to the audience, from Villeneuve, is to empathize with one another. To do that, matters need to be addressed, verbally. It seems childish to assume that the UN does not have adept translators, and even more childish to suggest that all the global issues can be solved by just speaking a common language. However, perspectives are there to help nurture and inform, so it is up to mankind to learn.