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The Medium Was The Message

02 December 201606:48AMreview

These are some thoughts on Arrival. Warning: spoilers abound.

Cheers to Jess, Morgan and Haydn for helping to form many of the ideas in this review. Seriously - see this movie, and take some friends. You won't be disappointed.

If you haven't seen Arrival, and you don't think you're likely to, the premise is this: Aliens ("Heptapods") arrive on Earth, and we have no idea why they're here. Louise, a linguist, leads the translation effort involved in first contact, and as she learns their language she realises its non-linear nature is rewiring her brain to perceive time differently. By the end of the film, she's able to see into her own future and prevent a crisis. It turns out that teaching us this language is the Heptapods' entire purpose on Earth, because they need our help - in thousands of years from now.


1. Language

The most interesting thing about Arrival is how plausible it all is. You know, apart from the whole massive alien monoliths thing.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language shapes the way we think, is a real thing. While linguists like to argue about how strong the effect is, there's a lot of evidence that it actually happens. Moreover, there's some evidence that specifically the metaphors we use to talk about time change the way we see it.

I'm less qualified to talk about the physics, but the fact that most of physics doesn't seem to care about time might go some way to explain what happens in the story, if not in reality.

This is straight up good science fiction. It takes concepts we're familiar with, science that we know, and spins it off into the unknown. Like all good SF, it asks "what if?",

The interesting thing is this: we see the effects of highly advanced physics all the time in science fiction. What we don't see so often is the effects of highly advanced culture - and the merging of the two. Why should creatures with the technology to cross whatever gulf separates them from us (time, space, or dimension) be limited by puny human concepts of what language can and can't be?

first contact

2. Anatomy

Heptapod also makes sense from another perspective - their anatomy matches the properties of their language. The way that humans communicate is tied to the organs we use to do it. When we speak, we can only say one thing at a time, and we have to serialise our ideas before we transmit them. Sounds, words and sentences are all inextricably tied to time, and have to be experienced in correct order for them to make sense. When we sign, we have the same limitations. One sign at a time, deployed in order.

Our written language developed out of our spoken ones, because we speak first. There's specialised hardware and (maybe) software installed on humans to make speaking possible. There's no such specialisation for writing. So when we write, it's as a representation of the way we speak. It's serialised, sequential, and temporal.

Heptapods have no such restrictions, at least not with their writing. The equipment to write is built into their bodies, and the ability to perceive it doesn't depend on receiving it in order. We might imagine cuttlefish, with the chromatophores in their skin, developing a similar way of communicating, transmitting entire complex concepts at once without the need to do things one bit at a time.

Or hey - we do some of this as humans too. Not in our writing, which is so tied to speech, but in the purely visual forms of communication. Art or photography, maybe, but what comes closest is graphs. A graph can show you many data points, multiple variables, and the relationships between all of them all at once, and it does it in a way that's highly conventional. Photos and paintings leave much interpretation up to the viewer, but a language (and a graph) has agreed upon meanings and symbols (like words, or an axis) that make them communicate much the same concept to everyone.

In fact, I think the experience of reading Heptapod would be a lot like reading highly conventionalised, very abstract graphs. Instead of showing data points and the relationships between them, they show concepts and the relationships between them. Whether or not that would give you the ability to see through time is probably something you should ask a mathematician.

heptapod language

3. The Gift

And this is the really interesting part of Arrival for me. We leave Louise right as she's becoming conversant in Heptapod. She has the basics of the language down, but she really isn't truly fluent. The events of the film are resolved, but their consequences aren't.

How much will her ability to see through time grow? What are the nature of her predictions? Can she act to change them, or are they set? Does she see probable timelines, or fixed ones? As she teaches the language to others (as she's shown to be doing), how do their gifts interact? Can she see other people's futures, or just her own? What about changing others' futures? How does human society change when prediction like this is commonplace? Economics? Society? Relationships?

Or, as I like to think, does becoming fluent in a language outside of time render all of those questions meaningless? Does she become so fluent in time that she navigates all that as deftly and unconsciously as we navigate the grammar of our native language, unaware of its rules and yet still following them perfectly?

Are we, ironically, only struggling with these questions because our language doesn't allow us to frame the world as hers now does? Is being bound to time an essential part of the human experience?

And once we don't have to struggle with those questions, to ponder what our past means and our future holds, are we still human? And if we're not, are we caterpillars not understanding how butterflies fly, or locals not comprehending a colonising force?

4. Arrival.

This is why Arrival is such an amazing film, and one that you should see if you haven't already. The film is intense, and well shot, with a beautiful soundtrack - but the best part of the movie is the questions it leaves you with, and the literal hours of discussion that those questions spark. This is the mark of brilliant science fiction, and I wish we had more of it hitting traditional cinemas than we do.

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