In a departure from my usual choice of film – you know, the ones with subtitles and no plot – I went to see Arrival – and it’s got aliens in it. I know – bear with me! So aliens have landed, the world’s on the brink of blowing itself up – who you gonna call? A Linguistics expert, of course! Well to be fair they also called a Scientist, just to even things out, because of that, er, well-known Linguistics/Science paradigm split, with nothing much in between. But who’s better? Let’s look at how Linguist Louise, played by Amy Adams, got the job. Seeing in Arrival most conundrums are framed in an easy-to-manage binary pattern, there are only two Language experts in the world: Louise and the guy from Berkeley (if only it was that simple, the literature review for my thesis would be a hell of a lot easier to write!) There is some sort of academic micro-debate going on though: it all comes down to the dealbreaker question of the Sanskrit word for war. Louise knows ‘the better’ translation, and that’s the end of the line for the guy from Berkeley. Baam! Of course Louise also has another major advantage: a traumatic back story. Perfect! (I just kept hoping throughout the film she wouldn’t get it mixed up with the X-Factor and break into song. Without giving too much away: she didn’t. Phew.) Also in true ‘what people who know nothing about Linguistics think Linguists do’-fashion she speaks lots of languages – this will come in useful later. In contrast, we know nothing about Jeremy Renner’s Ian the Scientist’s recruitment process – he probably slept with someone important, you know those sciency types.
Brought in to figure out why the aliens – half giant spiders with a leg missing, half massive cracked heel – have come to Earth, Linguist Louise whips out a mini-whiteboard to facilitate communication. Primary school teachers of the world, rejoice, and keep up the good effort – your methods are working! Turns out there is no correlation between the eerie noises the aliens make and what they write. For all we know they may just have been farting. Luckily Linguist Louise stops short of asking Ian the Scientist to explain what correlation means (unlike when she says to her daughter: ‘if you want Science, ask your dad’ – adding in her head ‘how many times, Sweetie? Daddy’s Science, Mummy’s Linguistics!’) Now this is where it gets interesting: Linguist Louise wipes the slate clean (literally) of Maths (aka Science…) scribblings and explains the morphology, syntax and semantics of the question ‘What’s your purpose on Earth?’ in the most pragmatic way (ha – see what I did here?) She even knows how to explain stuff to Forest ‘Ah, now I get it’ Whitaker’s The Colonel, who clearly knows nothing about anything but is tasked with conveying key information to the guys with the finger on the red button. Risky. There’s a curious absence of The President – wouldn’t he (or she – but in the light of recent electoral events more likely he) be on the scene in this kind of Situation with a capital S? Of course – the concept of Donald Trump ever becoming president would have been too far-fetched to entertain, even for a Sci-Fi movie. Shame really, because he would have known just what to do – build a really, really high wall! Simples! As it happens it’s down to Linguist Louise to save the world – no pressure.
If you can suspend disbelief and put up with occasional pockets of ridiculousness, it’s a rare treat indeed to sit back and watch a Linguistics academic (female!) try and stop World (and beyond!) War 3. You don’t even have to be familiar with non-linear approaches to Language Studies, Whorfianism, or Determinism to enjoy how events unfold (but it may help). Personally, they had me at Linguistics.
Arrival, based on Story of your Life by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is on general release in cinemas right now.