The Language of Arrival

November 29, 2016

“In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.”T.S Eliot, “East Coker” from The Four Quartets

Arrival is another multi-million dollar spectacle aimed at mass audiences worldwide, it tries to infuse its first-contact scenario with cognitive and mystical problems that challenge moviegoers who might want only to be entertained. Those problems rest, unavoidably, on theological and philosophical assumptions about human life itself. Arrival’s assumptions aren’t satisfying upon inspection, although you might at least find the movie more thought-provoking than standard Hollywood fare.

The first obvious, heady statement that Arrival makes is that first-contact—our initial meeting with intelligent alien life—will be a slow-going affair. We won’t be able to talk or write to aliens, whose language and culture will look nearly impenetrable to us when we meet them. That’s why, in Arrival, the US military employs an ingenious linguistics professor, Dr. Louise Banks, to decipher the alien language.

Banks is teamed with Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist. Although he would like to learn the advanced mathematics of space travel from the newly arrived aliens, Donnelly is rebuked by Banks early on, who tells him that, before anything else, we just need to learn to communicate with them. Arrival’s first act proceeds much more slowly than other first-contact stories you’ve seen—it’s more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than The Day Earth Stood Still—in part because it does not assume that communication with aliens is very easy. Learning the alien language and interpreting it is the second-greatest challenge for humans.

The greatest challenge may just be getting along and sharing information with each other. When the aliens land on Earth in Arrival, they land in twelve different spots with twelve different ships. This means that several countries—including the US, Russia, China, and Australia—each have their own contact moments. The countries coordinate with each other at first, but then paranoia and threats of violence hinder and nearly shut down diplomacy and the sharing of scientific knowledge. Arrival would like to say that we are more alien to each other, at times, than to aliens themselves—a point made by countless SF stories about alien-human relations. Thankfully, Banks’ preference for the nuances of language and open-ended interpretation combat militaristic paranoia. This is perhaps the movie’s greatest hope.

Arrival quotes liberally from the most influential of all SF movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But the surprise is that it also quotes, and even seems to prefer, a more recent rebuke to 2001: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). At first, the alien ships resemble a much more massive, egg-shaped version of the mysterious black monolith of 2001. When the scientists first approach the aliens, we see an endless black tunnel and hear nothing but their breaths in their oxygenated suits. The scene of initial contact is nearly ripped from the second act of 2001, in which human scientists find the monolith on the moon. Initially, Arrival seems to agree with Kubrick’s bleaker, anti-human vision of the cosmos, before we realize that it is veering in another direction.

That direction is completely informed by Malick’s work. In The Tree of Life, a story about the beginning and ending of the cosmos and its meaning for a particular Texas family in the 1950s, Malick’s ever-moving camera shows us fragmented glimpses of domestic bliss and heartache. Malick foregrounds the very particular, the local family in a brief moment in time, as something very significant even within a massive cosmos in terms of time and space.

Arrival uses the film grammar of Malick—moving-camera close-up shots of Banks playing with her daughter, of that daughter running in fields and playing by water—to show the particular worth of a personal story, even within the one of the most significant moments in human history (i.e., first contact with aliens). Although Banks is at first like all of us—an insignificant individual who is just a bystander to a grand event—her particular story is key to the entire first-contact scenario. The story of Banks and her daughter matter, unlike the de-humanized characters in 2001, who are engulfed by the cosmos and by eons of time. Banks’ example means that, if other seemingly insignificant people understand the alien language in Arrival, their little stories will matter mightily, too.

Still, Arrival is plagued by a couple of major problems. It asks us to believe that worldwide unity, maybe even global peace, is threatened by crazy Christian Pentecostals and Chinese aggression fueled by isolationism. As well, there is a rather silly moment in which a US soldier, directly influenced by conservative radio host, becomes imprudently violent. While trying to unifying the world, Arrival divides.

But Arrival’s greater problem is philosophical short-sightedness. It doesn’t pay much attention to the long, rich tradition of first-contact stories, particular those of the great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.1 Although Arrival’s preference for the problems of linguistic interpretation and the act of communication itself are also Lem’s, Arrival makes the quick assumption in its second act that whipsmart US scientists can decode alien language rather quickly. That means that aliens are just anthropocentric, as aliens in most SF normally are, even though these aliens are seven-legged, squid-like giants.

Yet in Lem’s best work, written over fifty years before Arrival’s release, he wonders if humans can ever understand the truly alien—if we are, in fact, incapable of grasping anything beyond a human perspective unless the alien itself can become human-like. Lem’s great novel Solaris, for example, is about a sentient planet that communicates with humans by recreating their memories. But the humans in that book ultimately never learn why the planet is doing this, or what it is saying by doing it. Perhaps the planet is defending itself, or giving them a gift, or playing with them like a child, or just doing what non-intelligent animals do instinctually. The point is that we humans can never know because we cannot inhabit the alien planet’s perspective.

Lem’s masterpiece, His Master’s Voice, is about the same kind of problem: humans receive an intelligent message from the stars, but decoding it is impossible because of the complexity and uncertainty of interpreting a wholly other, non-human language. For Lem, science breaks down when it tries to go beyond a human perspective, because it is developed within a human perspective that is built on unavoidable philosophical and theological assumptions about human nature and cognition.

But Arrival says that we can figure out an intelligent alien language and that, assuming the truth of the Sapir-Worff hypothesis, the alien language itself can re-wire our brains. By doing so, the aliens give us a gift, which is mistakenly interpreted as a “weapon” in the movie. Their gift is a new revelation, one that allows us to embrace the tragic vision of suffering with a stoic resignation. The alien language helps us accept our fate, even if that fate means knowing that we will suffer in the future.

The theological problem with Arrival, then, is a seeming lack of the Christian virtue of hope. We might gain much from learning the alien language, even the secrets of time and our destinies, but the lone assurance we have is that the future exists for us until it does not. Arrival’s quotations from Malick’s The Tree of Life are misinterpretations, then, because The Tree of Life affirms the eternal in the temporal and the cosmic in the local. The Tree of Life’s vision is comic, that all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well beyond death—beyond divorce and even tragic death, two things that Arrival never gets past.

In that way, The Tree of Life is more Augustinian—think Augustine’s Confessions—whereas Arrival reminds me a bit of the great Roman stoics, including Cicero and Seneca, albeit feminized nicely by the character of Louise Banks. As profound as they are, they help us deal with our fate, and no more. I still prefer Malick’s vision, which seeped a bit into Arrival’s narrative rival, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). That movie has its problems, too, but the personal story in it is wrapped up in a love and hope that persists beyond the ending.

Arrival, meanwhile, ends where it begins. That return to a beginning seems like a sign of the Ouroboros rather an acknowledgement of the Alpha and Omega. Perhaps the aliens will return and tell me differently, assuming that I can understand them?

About the Author
  • Josh Matthews has taught a variety of courses at Dordt, including early American literature, science fiction, and introduction to film as art. He specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature, and he has published on the reception of Dante and the Divine Comedy in nineteenth-century America. His American Literature I class features research into the magazines and newspapers of nineteenth-century print culture, using the American Antiquarian Society's periodical database; this unique resource allows students to conduct original research on the intersections between American history, literature, and culture. His interests include Dante, Walt Whitman, and science-fiction writers Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick. Matthews has supervised Kuyper Scholars contracts on Mark Twain and David Fincher. He edits the book reviews for Pro Rege, Dordt University's journal of reformed studies, and he has also helped edit the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Walt Whitman Archive.

  1. Arrival’s screenplay is based on Ted Chiang’s 1999 novella “The Story of Your Life.” As usual, the book is much richer and more provocative than the movie, in terms of ideas that combine linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. 

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  1. Josh, thanks for placing this film in the context of 2001, Interstellar and Tree of Life, as well as in a a broader SF historical context. Your review is tremendously helpful.

  2. My friend, while I respect your scrupulous attention to the virtues of cinema, let me remind you that it is still a medium for the masses, who recently voted for a leader who is a reality TV show star and a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. (I have never written those last five words. May I never do so again.) There is nothing like symphonic wonder to cheer or tame the soul, yet the foul “artist,” Stanley Kubrick, corrupted the great musical works by Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss in that ridiculous space movie that you mention. He also made apes dance around like circus clowns for nearly thirty minutes before getting to anything of substance. Please ponder this: apes for thirty, long, arduous minutes. As everyone knows, this was a brand new method of torture, deemed by some as “art.” Pah!

    Do you imagine that this work, this movie about aliens that do not and never will exist, can possibly be worth thinking about for five minutes? I urge you, dear friend, to retract this piece of writing which can do nothing but harm the most sensitive and most vulnerable of our beloved Christian brothers and sisters, who may know no better than the commercialized drivel that they unwittingly consume, on average of three to eighteen hours a day.

    Or do you really love thirty minutes of apes that much?

    Your humble servant, Jahn

    1. Jahn, your Dutch attitudes continue to get you into trouble. If you spoiled the movie for me in any way, I’ll be upset. NO spoilers!

  3. My dear Paul, no one should take rebukes from a man who reveres movies that bash our beloved profession, history. Do you think that if Genghis Khan were really to show up in San Dimas, California, circa 1987, that he would team up with Sigmund Freud to rampage a shopping mall? Neither would Napoleon condescend to romp around a waterpark. I await the day when you and our colleagues renounce such an absurdity as that Bill and Ted movie.

    Did you know that the 2001 movie ends with a baby in space? Yes, an enormous infant floating in the ethereal realms. Thus, what you are calling “art” begins with thirty minutes of apes and ends with a giant space baby. My Dutch forebears, except that wacko Hieronymus Bosch, would have rightly scoffed at such stupidity.

    Paint trees, tulips, landscapes, oceans, windmills, maidens — anything but dancing apes and space babies.

  4. Jahn, Josh and others, I just saw the movie. So I read Josh’s review more carefully…I skipped over some of it so I wouldn’t get any spoilers, I agree with the weird stuff like the right wing kooks who want to blow stuff up is a trope not needed. I also see his point with Tree of Life….but here’s the thing: Tree of Life was a mess and unwatchable for me. Truly…it seeemed like someone describing an LSD trip with no explanation or context of the drug being taken. This makes more sense. I also saw more of Contact, too in this, I think…which didn’t come out in Josh’s review. Finally, what I appreciated about this, even more than Contact, was how this was in many ways, the opposite of The Martian with Matt Damon. Remember when Matt Damon says (And it is one of the themes of the movie) that he had to “science the shit out it” to more or less stay alive…that science and technology were the solution. This movie offers a far more human approach…and a refreshing one, I think, without discounting the value of science either. Anyways, thanks for your review, Josh. And Jahn, one message from another movie from your young adult years….Lighten up, Francis.