Thursday, December 08, 2016

Alien language, alien mind

     Arrival (2106) [D: Denis Villeneuve. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker] The aliens finally arrive, in 12 ships scattered round the globe. They clearly attempt to communicate, so linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is recruited to learn the language. The heptapods (one less tentacle than octopi) use both whale-like sounds and a written language. Louise, with some help from physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), deciphers the written symbols, each of which is a complex circular string of squiggles that represents a complete utterance.
     The movie, like the story it’s based on, asks and plausibly answers a number of questions. Could one  communicate with a non-human mind? Yes, if there are some common concepts to start from, in this case the difference between “human” and “Louise”. Does learning a language rewire the brain? Yes, in fact it does. Does that rewiring change the way you perceive the world? Maybe. As a bilingual, I would say yes, but not as drastically as is posited here. For the heptapods time isn’t linear: they have an all-at-once perception of past, present, and future. Their circular "sentences" can be read starting from any point and in either direction. Louise’s daughter has died of leukemia. As she masters the heptapod language, Louise's latent second sight develops so that her daughter’s life becomes present to her, as does her future with Ian, and the child she will have with him.
     The mcguffin is that the 12 ships each provide part of the answer about the heptapods’ purpose in arriving on Earth: they will need human help in the future, but can get it only if humans co-operate and become one world. Which happens, but only because Louise is able to talk to the Chinese ruler in his own language over an NSA cellphone.
     As you can see, this is a complicated movie, on many levels. Villeneuve knows how to make us engage in what for many of us would be an esoteric irrelevance or a boring exercise in abstruse academic theorising. The acting and editing occasionally confuse, that’s why I want to see it again. Is it a fault that the movie demands more than one viewing? I don’t think so. ****

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