Denis Villeneuve's “Arrival” or How to Talk to Aliens

"Arrival" is a movie by Denis Villeneuve based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. The film deals with the meaning of language and how it expresses our perception of reality. But language can be ambiguous. How can you be sure that you understood a word in the same way that the speaker intended (quoted from the film: "How can we be sure that they understand the difference between a tool and a weapon?"), and what misunderstandings and mislead actions can arise from that ("When you're given a hammer, all the world starts looking like a nail"). (Going beyond the themes of the movie, you could apply this logic to concepts like "When you have a concept of 'enemy', what does that do to your attitude towards other, probably foreign people?") Furthermore, language is also shaped by our perception of reality. And what happens if that very perception of reality is fundamentally different in two speakers?

In the film, aliens land on Earth, and while they don't seem to be hostile, how do you find out what they want and why they came without being able to communicate with them? A linguist, Louise Banks is sent in to establish communication and translate their language, but the more she begins to understand the language of the extraterrestrials, the more she realizes that their perception of reality and time itself seems to be totally different to that of humans. And that very understanding is in turn changing her own perception of reality.

While the film does quite a good job of capturing the essence of the original story without adding too much "pop stuff" to make it suitable for a mainstream movie release, the original short story itself does a better job of explaining the diverging world views. That's because it has more time to describe the underlying theories in detail. It's probably hard to understand the movie when watching it for the first time without knowing the original short story. Understanding the complex story requires you to shift your way of thinking and perceiving, and in doing this your personal experience is mirroring the revelations Louise Banks has in the film. A very intelligent movie that will certainly leave a lasting impression - if you dive deeply into it and let it guide you.

Apart from the story itself, I also liked the way that some of the concepts were implemented visually, especially through the use of depth of field. Even in wide angle shots, the focus is on Louise Banks, leaving her surroundings blurry and hardly recognizable and making her seem isolated from the world around her. A fitting visual representation of the feeling of not being able to communicate and thus not understanding what is going on. The same concept is mirrored in the way the aliens are presented in a room full of smoke, which obliterates their actual figure. Another noteworthy trait is that while we're repeatedly being shown television news footage of looters, riots and violence among ordinary people as a reaction of the arrival of the aliens, there are (almost) no similar incidents among the main characters that we're following, they are doing their best working on what could be described as diplomacy. The inner mechanisms of "regular people" seem to conjure up threatening images of an alien invasion, while those actually working on the issue are much more grounded in reality.

I also realized that between the trailer and the actual film, there are (at least in the German version) differences in translation that change the meaning of certain sentences. While this could be attributed to the workflow (a different translation for the earlier teaser as opposed to the final script), I would like to believe that it is intended, since it is a good example of the ambiguity of language that is a theme of the film itself.

I do recommend to read more of Ted Chiang's short stories, which are available in the anthology "Stories of Your Life and Others". They are all beautifully constructed and present eye-opening ideas. At least for me, each of them sparked something in me, a new idea, a new way of looking at things. You can literally feel Chiang's words influencing your own way of thinking by providing new ideas and connections. And again, that mirrors what is happening in the film. External influences change internal mechanisms. And going beyond these specific stories and film, this is also what happens all the time in our lives. It can be called development, change, evolution, whatever you wish. Understanding that seems to be quite important considering the times we live in.


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