Monday, November 21, 2016

Arrival (2016)

As ambitious science fiction goes, Arrival is not bad. Twelve ships from space have appeared on Earth, positioned around the globe in no evident pattern, and no one knows what they want. My neighbor in the row behind me thought they looked like eggs. I thought they looked more like classic flying saucers tipped on the edge, although I didn't mention it to him (as it turned out, he had a lot of opinions on the action). In terms of alien encounter scenarios (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, District 9), Arrival encourages us to hold on thar, pardner. How are you supposed to communicate with the things in the first place? In many science fiction pictures, this language barrier is solved quickly and easily by something called a Universal Translator, which takes care of the problem in right good order. Except, that is, for stories where the UT fails and language problems are the point—remember "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra"? Arrival is that episode. Linguists are the key to our survival and we're not talking about pasta lovers. Colonel Weber of the U.S. military (Forest Whitaker) ropes in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out how to talk to the aliens inside the ship that is hovering 30 feet above Montana. They want an answer to the obvious question: What is your purpose on Earth? But as Dr. Banks literally diagrams at one point, it's actually quite difficult to translate that into another language when you don't understand the basis of the other language. There follow many fascinating scenes where concepts of linguistics are thrown around and aired out, as convenient. Love that stuff. I better not give away any more than that, as the trial-and-error process of understanding a truly alien culture (these are very alien aliens) gets sorted out. Anyone who follows the Language Log blog is bound to like it, and that includes me, although I can't say I loved it. It gets a little too full of tricks for its own good in the end. But it has a lot of intriguing fun playing around with linguistic theories of language, perception, and reality, e.g., does thought determine language, or does language determine thought? Ultimately it goes to a kind of silly place, a land of lost children and sadness, but that's why it's a movie coming out at this time of year. I wish, in fact, that it would have gone even deeper into the linguistics arcana, which is all full of head trips, and left the treacle out of it. But what are you going to do? Damn it, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner want Oscars. Worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. Close Encounters is in this genre but the linguistics pure hokum, right?