Arrival: a linguistic case odyssey (REVIEW)

Amy Adams as an exo-linguist?  I am so here for this, but then again…

Arrival uproots all the usual sci-fi magic of universal translators and Disney Pocahontas language learning with the quickness.  Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who lives in an impossibly expensive-looking glass house on a lake.  Ha.  The linguistics professors I’ve known have all been lovable, disheveled, malaria-flashback-ridden dorks.

ALSO, linguistics professors are not translators; they know how languages work, but they don’t necessarily know every language or translate Farsi for the military like Dr. Banks does.  Whatever, Hollywood, keep doing you and your half-ass science appropriation.  Dr. Banks quietly overcomes fears about changing gravity and scary aliens while surrounded by judgy army guys.  She is the sole woman in a sea of dudes—except maybe Abbott and Costello, the aliens, who could be any gender (but obvs they’re male, duuuuhhhh).

The aliens were unconventional in their shape and congeniality, but their motivations for landing/hovering on earth were murky at best.  Their written language is the reason to see the movie, especially if you have some linguistic background, and you’ve always envied your engineer friends calling bullshit on sci-fi pseudo-science.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is an old, contested idea almost stamped out by Chomskyans: it posits that the structure of your language forms the way you think.


Source: Pinterest


It’s true to some extent; in English, for example, we refer to direction with the self as a reference point (left/right/back/front), while in some indigenous Australian languages direction is in relation to the environment (north/south/east/west).  Yep, we actually use both in English, but which comes more naturally?  Herein lies the squishiness of social science.  There’s a really interesting Radiolab episode about how people see and name colors cross-culturally and throughout history.  Ultimately, the hypothesis is correct in its weak form, otherwise, no one could ever translate anything or learn a second language.  (Anthro friends, feel free to school me on this subject if I’ve dropped the ball.)

The aliens use logograms that look like fucking coffee mug stains.  Dr. Banks makes quick work of translating them while the super-advanced aliens hang out in their fog doing nothing.  Basically, the aliens experience time as non-linear, and since their written language has no past/present/future tense, Dr. Banks “catches” non-linear thinking just by learning their language, and starts hopping around in time.   The way we see a particular coffee mug stain translated on Dr. Banks’s futuristic space-tablet looks like a list of words puked out without a grammatical case or tense.  I feel like there’s a difference between word puke and non-linear time cognition, but I’m just a dumb archaeologist and can’t think of a clever alternative.

Can’t help but think of 2001: a space odyssey, my favoritest movie: big black phallic objects floating in the air, an eerie vocal soundtrack, heavy breathing in space suits.  I’ve always interpreted the floating baby and the weird multi-aged Daves at the end of 2001 as Dave in an alien zoo with non-linear time, showing his entire lifespan for the alien audience.  Bugs me a bit how Dr. Banks’s non-linear time experience is centered around her family; if she was a man, it would have been some corny existential crisis.  (See spoiler below, if you dare.)  This damage works both ways, of course; men can’t care about their families, while women can only care about their families.

Dr. Banks saves the day because she can see through time, hooray, it’s kinda dumb.  Maybe I should read the short story and see if it’s equally corny.  I doubt it.

Should you see it?  Yeah, I guess.  I keep supporting corny crap because I want more female protags who aren’t perfect robots, and this movie in particular because of its academic linguist as the star of the show (!).  It’s linguistic Indiana Jones.  But the spoiler (below), it’s giving me issues.


An inspiration for alien logograms: I can see you grasping for ideas, Arrival writers.



So, Dr. Banks can see through time and shit, and she sees her unborn daughter’s life from its beginning to its early end due to some rare lymphoma.  She decides to have her daughter anyway.  Wait… is this some kind of pro-life parable?  But she DECIDED… or did she?  Is non-linear time deterministic?  *brain explodes*


Source: GIPHY



I’m not going to slap a label on the film because the lead made a painful choice (?) to have a kid destined to die early.  I’m fighting the urge to interpret every film as a political product: did they draw liberal, over-educated Shannon in with aliens, linguistics, and Amy Adams’s delightfully pointy nose to try to undermine my pro-choice beliefs?  I leaped straight to rage at first, but then I was all like, “Naw, indoctrination ain’t what sci-fi is for. They’re trying to get us to think about choice/abortion/disease/life in a nuanced way.  Shit, I might have that baby too, being able to see all those sweet moments we’d share together.”  We all need to work on escaping black and white thinking, myself absolutely included.  No, they did not get to me, I’m just trying to work on being less reactionary in this current political climate.