Science-fiction thrillers often send in gun-toting heroes such as Will Smith and Tom Cruise to kick invading-alien butt. The movie “Arrival” is completely, wonderfully different: It sends in a linguist, played by Amy Adams.
“Language,” one character says, “is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” The big question to ask the aliens: What is their purpose on Earth?
In the 1997 movie “Contact,” the character played by Jodie Foster figured out that aliens were using sequences of prime numbers in their communications, and she used those numbers as a Rosetta stone to decrypt their messages. In 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the visitors from afar helpfully used five musical tones in a major scale, presumably because vibrating strings have the same harmonics in several parts of our galaxy.
The aliens of “Arrival” make incomprehensible groaning noises. In attempting to communicate with them, Adams’s character, Louise Banks, learns that their written language is circular and that it doesn’t seem to progress from cause to effect. To the aliens, time does not have a direction.
This is not so odd: On Earth, some cultures conceive of time differently from other people. Chinese-speakers tend to think of time running from top to bottom, as opposed to English-speakers, who think of time running left to right.
“They use nonlinear orthography,” Banks says. “Do they think like that, too?”
This is our introduction to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that language shapes the way we think. In the 1940s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf proposed that the structure of a language determines, or at least influences, how we perceive and experience the world. The theory has been controversial, but there is now some support for it.
For example, there are two words in Russian for different shades of blue, and Russian-speakers are faster at discriminating between the shades than are English-speakers. It seems that words can prime parts of the brain to work better.
Some supporters of linguistic relativity, which is another name for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, think that the cognitive benefits of language helped spur its evolution. This is relevant to the movie, as the fate of humanity, and possibly of the aliens, depends on our understanding their language.
There may be some evidence for this selective power of language in putty-nosed monkeys. These are social monkeys that live in Nigeria and have two simple warning calls: A “pyow” means there is a leopard coming, and a “hack” means there is an eagle. But if you put the two together, it means “Let’s move along.” It’s very simple, to be sure, but language requires different meanings to be constructed from common syllables, a skill that the monkeys have mastered.
The movie takes this idea and runs with it. If you learn a new language, your brain gets rewired, we are told. Sure, this happens — especially in bilingual speakers switching between languages. In “Arrival,” we see Banks’s brain getting rewired to an absurd extreme.
This rewiring has a deeply personal impact on her. In fact, “Arrival” is far more about human understanding, memory, love and fortitude than it is about an alien invasion.
Banks’s daughter, Hannah, has died of a rare illness. “There are days that define the story of your life,” Banks says at the film’s downbeat beginning. Here we get a name-check to the short story on which the film is based, a piece by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life,” and a subtle clue to one of the themes of the film: Hannah’s name is a palindrome, so it reads the same forward and backward.
“Interstellar” achieved a similarly moving emotional tone, but that film had an epic, last-chance-for-humanity feel to it. With “Arrival,” the stakes are just as high but the struggle and the tension stay grounded: Adams gives a performance of such intimacy and empathy that she dominates everyone else on screen, even the gigantic, mysterious aliens themselves.