I’ve been anxiously awaiting the movie Arrival (starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) since I first saw the trailer a few months back. It looked like it was going to be a “hard” science fiction movie and not just cowboys in space. (Though as a fan of Firefly, I have nothing against cowboys in space.) I was not disappointed. It had aliens who were actually alien.
But it went beyond that. It is a smart movie that is about communication and confronts, as much as is possible in a movie that hopes to break-even, the difficulty in communicating with a civilization that is truly different.
Communication is difficult to begin with. I can tell my students what they need to do in plain language — ”The test is going to be on FRIDAY” — and some of them won’t get it. So even when subtleties are not involved, communication is difficult. Subtleties can have a big effect (affect? No effect). Oh, heck: Tiny things can mean a lot. Consider the two short Spanish sentences below:
There is only a difference in word order and an accent over one letter. The first means “I want tea” and the second means “I love you.” They will yield far different results.
In basic mathematical communication theory, communication has three pieces: the sender, the receiver, and the channel between them. This abstract notion captures everything from two kids talking on a tin-can telephone to a computer writing to a hard disk, and a lot more besides. The idea is that you send out your message over the channel where there might be noise to mess it up and then the folks on the other end try to figure out what you just said. (My long-suffering readers are familiar with the basic problem here.)
The point is, not only does the sender have to be careful about crafting the message, the receiver has to be prepared to receive it.
In the movie, this is shown by the contrast between the approaches taken by the linguist and that take by the intelligence community. The linguist (played by Amy Adams) is aware of that any word can have a large range of meanings; her military clients, however, have their duty of protecting the country which narrows the channel through which they receive information.
This handled more fairly than has been in other movies. It is not a matter of “scientists good/military bad” which has been done so many times. The military is not portrayed as being malevolent so much as being blinkered. They are blinkered by their expectations because defending us is their job and everything is interpreted in that light. Every utterance is a potential threat which it is their job to protect against. While this is the essence of their job, it is death to adequate communication with the aliens in this movie.
Going into any conversation, we are responsible to prepare ourselves to understand as much as we are to convey ourselves accurately. My Uncle Joe used to say, “There is your side, then there’s my side, and then there’s the truth about the thing.” Were he a pompous college professor, he might’ve said, “You must consider multiple perspectives in discerning the truth of any statement.” But he wouldn’t’ve been any more right.
I’ve only scratched the surface of issues open by this movie, but I cannot go any further without spoilers. And I do not wish to risk spoiling the surprise this has in store for the serious viewer. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention this movie is not only for the head, but for the heart as well. It seems that writers of serious science fiction have at last discovered love: the love of mother for daughter in this case.
Arrival is playing in a cinema in that city across the state line whose name I dare not utter. I’ve been told that there aren’t plans for it to come to Pittsburg. I don’t know why; it has not be communicated to me.
— Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.