Now you’re thinking my language

Communication is complicated. It always involves an attempt to mesh at least two ways of thinking that don't line up. Arrival, the recent film directed by French Canadian Denis Villeneuve, takes this strangeness to its fictional extreme in presenting a first contact scenario between humanity and an alien race. The film hangs its premise on the idea that the language you speak and think shapes how you think and understand the world. This has significant implications for how you encounter others who do not speak your language.

Arrival’s central character, Louise Banks, played with incredible depth by Amy Adams, is a linguist called upon to help the American government translate the language of aliens who arrive unannounced in 12 enormous ships. In this project, she is partnered with physicist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. The film follows Louise’s journey of learning the aliens’ language and purpose and discovering how that process affects her own story.

Louise’s journey from confusion to clarity begins when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) approaches her with an audio file of the sounds that the aliens are making. After claiming that it’s impossible to translate from an audio file, Weber leaves to approach a linguist colleague at another university, but not before Louise tells him to ask her competitor to translate the Sanskrit word for “war.” Weber returns for her in a helicopter. The competitor had translated the word as “argument” while she chose to see it as “a desire for more cows.” In this Louise reveals that she is willing to look past fear and see the potential for communication with anyone.

The first conversation between Louise and Weber parallels the hesitation present in the first encounter with the aliens. We’re not privy to its final moments but we’re made aware that it wasn’t exactly an immediately successful introduction. Prior to its breakdown, the presentation of the strangeness of the first encounter with the aliens is heightened. Barriers and literal changes in perspective are shown via a literal shift in gravity. Humans enter the chamber where communication is to happen in a process that is clearly disorienting to them and the audience. What is first presented as a wall becomes a floor, then the ceiling and then a floor again. What is up or down in this set up isn’t immediately clear. Added to this is the fact that they remain separated from the aliens by a fog, a transparent wall and even the bulky suits they are forced to wear, which obscure their faces and the shape of their bodies.

Throughout the film there is a tension between Louise’s desire to communicate and connect and the caution and fear that’s taken hold of everyone else. Colonel Weber seems to want to get as much information as he can with as little contact as possible while Louise is constantly arguing that truly communicating takes time and requires vulnerability. It’s a process that recognizes that language is messy and the difference between “weapon” and “tool” might not be as clear as we think. It isn’t until Louise takes the risk of removing her protective suit during the second meeting with the aliens that progress is made through “a proper introduction.”

Arrival’s main argument seems to be that choosing to risk and remain connected in communication is ultimately more important than trying to protect yourself by holding back. At a low point in the communications, Louise tells Weber, “as long as they stay, we have to stay.” The film also suggests that in order to truly communicate with someone you need to learn to think at least a little like they do. Ultimately, it is a misunderstanding rooted in fear that forces Louise to take a risk and reach out, make a connection and find unity. For her the connection is worth it no matter how difficult it might be.

  • Walter Miedema is a full time furniture and appliance “Delivery and Sales” man, a part time preacher and an aspiring librarian. He tries to think deeply about art, theology and storytelling, but it doesn’t always work. He lives in London, Ont.

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