Arrival is very different from your typical alien invasion movie. Although such movies can be enjoyable to watch, Arrival has gone a different direction by choosing linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, to take on the role of hero. Her heroism doesn’t come from brute strength, or special powers; but from her bravery, communication, intelligence, open-mindedness, and genuine desire to see from other points of view.
When 12 alien pods enter Earth’s atmosphere and hover over 12 distinct regions, Louise Banks is recruited to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors, and translate their language. World leaders try desperately to learn why the aliens, known as the heptapods, have come to Earth, and what they want. Have they come in peace? Or are they here to destroy us all? The fact that the heptopods and the humans can’t understand each other’s languages, poses a huge obstacle in getting those answers. In the face of uncertainty, violence and war break out amongst the people.
At its heart, Arrival is a movie about the role communication plays in our relationships, both personal and political. When Louise Banks first meets theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, in a helicopter on their way to make their first contact with the heptopods, Donnelly introduces himself to Louise by reading a quote from her published book. “Language is the cornerstone of any civilization. Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
Then Ian Donnelly goes on to tell her she’s wrong, that science is the true cornerstone of civilization. His disagreement with Louise’s quote shows the potential conflict the characters sometimes have in relating to one another. Although their first contact involves dispute, their relationship becomes more amiable as they work together to learn the language of the heptopods. At one point, in a tender moment, Ian tells Louise that out of their whole team, she’s the only one he can actually relate to.
Ian makes a great supporting character because he is the logical, scientific mind to Louise’s reflective, thoughtful, and intuitive intelligence that looks for more than one solution to a problem. Although there’s a lot of great chemistry between the characters, their differing worldviews add conflict. Their relationship is a great example of the importance of good communication. When Louise and Ian work together, and communicate well, they’re an unstoppable, powerful team; but when communication breaks down, that team becomes divided.
Arrival also makes this point on a grander, global scale. Due to the language barrier, no one knows why the heptopods are here, and that creates fear and chaos amongst the people of the world. The heptopods didn’t arrive in the Independence Day alien invasion style, laser-guns-ablazing. Their podships just floated peacefully above the ground, causing no harm. Still, certain groups of people were unhappy with the fact that the world governments chose to try to communicate with the heptopods rather than deciding on a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Violence and hate become widespread amongst regular citizens all around the world. If the heptopods had come to Earth already knowing how to speak any of our human languages, and could communicate to world leaders their intentions, perhaps people’s reactions would have been different.
Louise, Ian, and their team of military personnel come face to face with 2 heptopods, which look like 7 foot floating jellyfish. Louise takes off her hazmat suit in order to better relate to the heptopods. Ian follows suit, and a real communication is born between the two humans and the visitors. Ian names them Abbott and Costello. Communication happens very slowly though. The heptopods write their language using smoky circular patterns, and it takes months for Louise to learn what each pattern means, and for the heptopods to learn simple words and phrases in the English language. Phrases as simple as “Ian walks” must be learned in order for both species to understand what the other is saying.
This is another great metaphor for communication in our own relationships. Anytime we converse with another human being, in a sense, it’s like talking to someone from a whole different world. Every person sees the world colored by their own distinct upbringing, environment, race, gender, etc. It’s no wonder there are so many miscommunications, or situations in which people have trouble viewing things from the perspective of others. If we took the time to fully understand others the way Louise and Ian did with Abbott and Costello, perhaps it would help to alleviate at least some of the world’s conflicts, and the conflicts we have with others in our own lives, whether it be with family members, friends, coworkers, and even people on the internet. Even though we speak the same language as the people in our own country or region, everyone communicates with their own subtext.
The movie explores this point deeper when the heptopods use a word that the humans find troubling, and Louise and Ian must find out what the heptopods meant by it before world leaders decide to declare war on the extraterrestrials.
China is one of the first countries to jump to conclusions. They cut off communication ties with all other countries. The rest of the world follows China’s lead and breaks off communication. This is another example of how communication breakdowns lead to aggression, division, and in more severe cases, war. Louise once again utilizes the power of language in hopes of restoring peace, and reopening the lines of communication.
If you’re into intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, I highly recommend going to see Arrival. It eloquently explores the themes of language and communication, and the pivotal role they play in human relationships; and how communication breakdowns lead to aggression, and division; and how the correct application of communication can be a powerful way to promote peace and unity. (Arrival also covers the topic of 4D nonlinear time, but that’s a whole different article.)