Friday, February 17, 2017

Arrival


Arrival is the latest in a line of movies that can be described as watered down science fiction where flashy high tech is removed just to keep close to reality. Previous movies are Interstellar and The Martian.

That was no less evident from the very arrival of the alien ships. There is none of the ‘oh shit’ that came with the city wide ships of Independence Day or sheer terror at the aggressiveness of the tripods of War of the Worlds. Arrival had a more creeping sense of unease. Think of it, if such a thing were to happen most of us would be learning it all on TV.  News are scant of details yet fear is like a thickening smoke. 

What I found beautiful most of all is that even silently floating precariously a little above ground, nobody shooting, society is still feeling a tear. It’s all that waiting. Usually such a nuance is never felt in invasion stories, everything is lost in the shooting; will the characters fight or take flight. For better or worse the silence let loose an atmosphere of introspection: what does it all mean to earth having visitors from another world?

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), theoretical physicist, lead the first contact team that hopes to find that meaning. Both are under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who leads the ground forces monitoring the lone ship landing in United States territory in Montana.  12 ships on earth all in all.

Of the cast I’m on the fence with Jeremy Renner as a theoretical physicist. Since there are aliens about I keep imagining he’ll pick up a bow and arrow when the going gets tough.

A linguist and a theoretical physicist. Here, watered down science fiction may have created problems for mass audiences.  Arrival focuses on language and communication without the ever convenient universal translator seen on Star Trek which has an entire universe full of aliens that coexist. Star Trek would have a mix of aliens talking as normal people would on the street. Then again in Star Wars, Han Solo understands Chewbacca. But if it were real how do you communicate to someone who is not like you?

Louise and Ian were procedural in their approach to communicate. It is a tedious process when talking is to everyone a mundane skill.  Colonel Weber even expressed as much.  What is a question? What is the alien view of self and collective? How much vocabulary is enough for a sensible conversation?

Translating alien language soon becomes personal introspection as much as the alien ships looming large over earth cities made countries look into their selves.  Biases have to be overcome but the trick is knowing first that you are. CIA point man regarded ship atmosphere corrected for human standards as a threat to kill, when the scientist merely marveled at process, perhaps even curious what kind of atmosphere the alien breaths.

Louise taking off her hazmat suit was the breakthrough for the entire story. 93% of communication is nonverbal. Openness. Context.  It is symbolic of the entire movie because she showed herself literally and mentally open to see the world through alien eyes.

Language is a weapon.  A second language rewires the brain. Logograms are free of time.  Social sciences majors can appreciate process in the movie in the same manner as someone interested in astronomy might have thought the concepts Interstellar beautiful.

Of course give all those concepts a sci-fi twist. If an alien says weapon what would you think? If you learn an alien language how would you think? And if your view of time is limited you have not watched enough science fiction. I have watched a lot of science fiction and time is always an irritating concept to watch since it gets me confused what is past or present. It is because of those temporal issues that for me made Hannah the character hardest to like since I can get a fix if she’s a key or a red herring.

Aliens notwithstanding the message of Arrival is quite earthly. Know the context. See through the eyes of others. Understand oneself. Unity. 

Lao Tzu said, ““He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”