Arrival: They’re Here…

Arrival is not your ordinary Alien Invasion Flick. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, its central premise is that communication is the key to understanding. In this it has more in common with films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind than it does with War of the Worlds.

Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is a Professor of linguistics who is tasked with discovering the intentions of the visitors from outer space. To do this she must establish some form of communication with the aliens before a war breaks out. But she faces two problems. The first is that the aliens communicate using noises that appear to bear no resemblance to language on earth. No surprise there.

The second and more fundamental problem is an issue that linguists wrestle with. The idea is that the brain rewires itself depending on the language being used. So Professor Banks not only has to decode the alien language, she has to learn how to think in the language in order to communicate with the aliens.

The idea that the quality of human thought is in part dependent on the type of language being used is a profoundly important one. It implies that changing how words are used and understood can change the way we think about things. In her excellent book Bourgeois Equality Deidre McCloskey more than tips her hat to this idea. She argues that the growth of Market Liberalism first took off in the English speaking countries principally because the language adapted to changes in the way business was being done. She shows that words like trust, honor and gentleman, which formerly referenced class status, began to be associated with individual behavior.

This shift in language paved the way for Adam Smith’s attack on mercantilism, just as it allowed respect for a man’s labor. No longer was it necessary to be royalty; a member of the bourgeoisie could be respected as honorable and a gentleman. This was a fundamental change in the social order.

In the 20th century it was Orwell who brought the point home with his novel 1984 and his essay “Politics and the English Language”. Language shapes the discussion and provides a conceptual baseline for understanding the world around us. Unfortunately this lesson still has to be learned before political correctness washes over everything, making debate discussion and scientific inquiry all but impossible. But I digress.

In Arrival, conflict or the potential for it, occurs at many levels. For instance, political rivalries surface among the various countries and political blocs on Earth. There are power struggles within countries between scientists and their respective political and military establishments. And of course, there is the problem of whether the intentions of the aliens are peaceful or not. In each case the fundamental problem is that decision-making must take place under conditions of limited information exacerbated by imperfect communication. And at any moment, taking a wrong step can easily lead to a catastrophe.

In this the movie bears no small resemblance to Graham Allison’s classic study of the Cuban missile crisis “Essence of Decision.” In that situation the wrong move by either party could have led to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. And the central problem faced by the respective counterparties was understanding the motivations and incentives of the opposing side while still managing internal political pressures, all under conditions of imperfect information and limited communication.

Amy Adams, who dominates the film, is quite believable as Professor Banks. And for once we have a film where the various other players—the Defense Department, soldiers on the ground and political strategists to name a few—are not all reduced to the usual shoot first and ask questions later neanderthals.

All told, Arrival is thoughtful, entertaining and well worth seeing.

Rated PG, 1 hour, 56 minutes.


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