“Arrival” movie — an earnest but muddled attempt to render alien communication


Why do aliens look like us?

Finally! A movie that makes an honest attempt to portray the way alien life-forms communicate — and actually stars a LINGUISTICS PROFESSOR who is tasked with figuring it out.

I was fascinated to see what they came up with. Previous efforts had the aliens either making unintelligible noises (as in “The Arrival,” a highly underrated movie with Charlie Sheen, Ron Silver, and Lindsay Crouse) or speaking perfect English, as has been the case as far back as the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and continuing through the original and all subsequent “Star Trek” movies and TV shows. (“Dune” used a simultaneous translating device, which at least shows an attempt.)
For some reason, the Klingons were given an actual language, while Vulcans, Romulans, and everybody else speaks English. Klingon has morphed into a full-fledged language, with literature, wedding vows, and – at least on “Big Bang Theory,”  Klingon Boggle. But Klingon, Dothraki (language of “Game of Thrones” and subject of a course at Berkeley), and all other made-up languages are human languages, subject to the properties and limitations of our brains and vocal organs.
The film- and game-makers could have saved themselves the trouble: languages all over the world are just as exotic and complex, with many features not found in the more familiar European tongues.
Aliens don’t speak English!
It’s all a cop-out, of course. And you can include “Star Wars” — in a far-off, long ago galaxy, everybody speaks English (except for the names of people and places, which sound like Lucas’ baby-talk). Seriously?
But “Arrival” does not cop out. It confronts the issue directly. I saw it twice, because at first I didn’t understand how the filmmakers were trying to conceptualize alien communication. I failed on both attempts, because the movie brought together a number of linguistic and sci-fi themes that added up to a muddled mess.
The linguist first figures out that although she can make no sense of the aliens’ sounds, the aliens are also communicating in visual images that look like circles with different shapes and strings attached to the periphery.
Every one of the circular images is different, suggesting that they mean different things. She and her team go to work, isolating the different pieces of all the circles in the conversations between earthlings and visitors.
How linguists analyze unknown languages
This is quite different from doing linguistic fieldwork on Earth, because all humans, no matter how exotic their language, will match up pieces of language with the world outside language, thereby creating meaning. After collecting large numbers of these correspondences, the field linguist can begin to put together a vocabulary and a grammar. But since we know nothing of the aliens’ world and they know nothing of ours, we don’t know how to get at whatever meaning they’re creating with their symbols.
This unbridgeable gap is blithely crossed, and pretty soon, the linguist and her crew are getting English words out of the circle patterns. In a further leap. they determine that the aliens are giving them “power” or “tools” (or maybe power tools) by which they can shape their world.
The script mentions the Whorf Hypothesis — i.e.,that our language and thought shape our perceptions of the world…but turns it strangely sideways and seems to be saying that language gives us the power to shape and change our world, as “magic words” like “shazam” are supposed to do.
Small world after all
By the end of the movie, linguist and aliens are communicating in simple pidgin-English-sounding sentences (another cop-out, since this is how human cultures talk when they first encounter each other). So now alien languages create meanings and utterances in the same way we do — and it’s a small world after all!
The movie contains pieces of several other sci-fi, fantasy, and time-travel themes, some following the premise that language enables us to reshape the past (I think). At some point, it eluded me completely.
Once again I realized that our images of extraterrestrials are limited by our perceptions of our world and ourselves. Beyond this, we cannot go. I’m reminded of a remark by a physicist that the universe is not only weirder than we imagine — it is weirder than we CAN imagine.