Close encounters with communication

Professor Richard Byrne discusses the movie Arrival, with spoilers.

At first sight, Arrival is another alien-contact movie, with spectacular computer effects giving magical images and lots of military huffing and puffing in the background. But this one is more interesting than average, because its focus is on communication rather than clever technology.

We first meet the central character, Louise (Amy Adams), in her academic working life as a comparative linguist. She lives quietly alone, a life centred on work; but she is saddened by disturbing memory flashes of her child’s birth, life and untimely death as a teenager. Her lecturing style is lively and engaging, yet strangely the few students who attend are more interested in news images of giant alien spacecraft – well, it makes a change from Facebook and tweeting. Twelve of these things, like enormous granite rugby balls sliced in half, have taken to hovering over various bits of the globe. What’s that to do with a harmless professor? We soon discover, as a Chinook helicopter lands noisily in her garden and Louise is whisked off to help the US military: conveniently, she has security clearance already, having in the past helped decipher material from insurgents.

At the makeshift headquarters in Montana, she gets her first sight of an alien spacecraft, and meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), the physicist she is to work with in trying to find out what the aliens are about. Ian clearly thinks the answers are more likely to come from physics than any of this fluffy humanities stuff. The scene in which they get their first sight of the aliens is beautifully crafted. Elevated on a large cherry-picker, they see a square door open in the bottom of the ‘shell’; slowly rising into the tunnel thus revealed, towards the square of light at the top (an echo of the familiar near-death reports, a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel?). Local gravity switches to one side, so that they can walk up the rest of the tunnel to a transparent wall, behind which mist swirls.

So far the build-up has been perfect, in best Treasure Island style, with the thing-to-be-feared kept well out of view. Inevitably, the aliens themselves are a slight disappointment, when they drift into view: clearly cephalopod-like, they are less strange than plenty of the creatures of the deep ocean in any recent Attenborough documentary. They only have seven arms, which is pretty odd when they are bilaterally symmetrical, and their noises are deep and continuously varying, like elephant ‘rumbles’ (Poole & Granli, 2009), so are clearly going to be no fun to decipher. Louise has the bright idea of trying script instead, and the heptapods come up trumps, with swirly ink-like emanations that form into circular patterns with irregular markings around the circumference.

The crux of the movie is Louise’s decipherment of these rings. In passing, Louise mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language characteristics determine the freedoms and constraints of the minds of speakers. I suspect the idea was given a much bigger part in the unedited version, as this is what it’s all about: the non-linear aspect of the inky-swirl script in some way gives the heptapods control over time, and that’s why they are here. They want to give us this gift, as they know that in 3000 years’ time they’ll need a favour from us and want to build up some credit: or something like that. Of course the military are less than convinced of this benevolence.

Denis Villeneuve’s film is thought-provoking and well-cast, as well as visually dramatic. The eventual conclusion, which involves Louise’s personal life as much as international politics, may not be entirely convincing; but then again if linguistic relativity really were that powerful, the results should be unexpected. Certainly the hypothesis of Arrival goes a long way beyond the attempts of Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown to test Sapir-Whorf with colour perception and word memory, and it’s fun to suspend common-sense for a few hours.

Poole, J.H. & Granli, P.K. 2009. ElephantVoices Gestures Database, http://www.elephantvoices.org

- Reviewed by Professor Richard Byrne, Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews. For more on communicating with alien races, read our interview with psychologist and SETI Director of Interstellar Message Composition Doug Vakoch, and Albert A. Harrison's lessons from history on encountering extraterrestrial intelligence.

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