Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens
Denis Villeneuve’s alien movie Arrival, which has just reached cinemas, is the latest in a long sci-fi tradition of “first contact” narratives. Twelve seed-like pods appear across the world, causing a global crisis when they hatch, as world leaders argue over what to do about them. Is it better to strike pre-emptively before they destroy civilisation or risk trying to communicate with them in the hope they come in peace?
The challenge for Villeneuve and anyone in this genre is how to portray the “otherness” of these visitors. There’s little that hasn’t been done before, of course, from green men to insectoids to red blobs – frequently thinly disguised versions of invaders from the East. This often goes hand in hand with the America Saves the World narrative, Independence Day (1996) being one of the classic examples.
But if sci-fi has had its fair share of clumsy metaphors, it is hard to depict the truly alien when all stories come from human imagination – and hard to represent them without some reference to the human. As the researcher Sherryl Vint has put it, sci-fi must:
achieve the delicate balance of enough familiarity such that alien can be comprehensible to the human readers, but still incorporate enough alterity in the text such that the alien also pushes us to conceive of the world and ourselves otherwise.
How alien should an alien be?
Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland addressed this question of whether the human imagination can escape its own limits to imagine something unimaginably different. Not a conventional sci-fi story, it is about a character in a two-dimensional world whose reality is drastically challenged when he discovers there are three dimensions. Representing aliens is exactly that kind of problem.
Part of the challenge is that efforts to communicate otherness risk losing their effectiveness if they are overplayed. This is one reason sci-fi often doesn’t show the creatures until well into a film – Arrival being no exception.
Some of the most effective narratives avoid representing their aliens as much as possible. In HP Lovecraft tales like The Call of Cthulu (1928), cosmic horrors resist description: they are unspeakable and indescribable – and the imagination must fill in the gaps as best it can. Ridley Scott doesn’t go quite this far in Alien (1979), but understands that his creature is more frightening and convincing in partial glimpses – usually of its dripping jaws – than when shown in its entirety.
In Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s approach is to be careful in the representation of his aliens. The film’s characters barely use that word, tending to refer to them as “they”. The first glimpses suggest squid-like bodies, floating in a low-gravity mist. At first it is not clear whether these are entire bodies or the hands of something more giant – more complete views later in the film suggest something in between. The creatures are dubbed “heptapods” for their seven “feet”, though different feet have different purposes.
The language barrier
I’ve seen far worse representations of alien creatures, but where Arrival becomes really interesting in portraying otherness is in the language of the visitors. Other sci-fi efforts to communicate with aliens have ranged from universal translators like the ones in Star Trek; to the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; or a common lingua franca like Star Wars’s Basic.
In Arrival, the American authorities call on Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an academic linguistics expert, to come to Montana – mirrored by communication efforts by linguistics experts in other countries around the world. In Montana it becomes clear that unless Louise succeeds, the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) can’t begin to answer his analytical questions about the creatures.
Their speech, if that’s what it is, consists of clicks and booms that are never deciphered. Understanding them depends on what is visible, particularly the inky circles of their written language. Unlike English words which describe spoken sounds, these circles are ideograms, symbols directly representing ideas or things. And when Louise and Ian observe that their grammar shows no markers of time direction, they begin to speculate that the creatures’ brains may be wired very differently to ours.
We later discover that the written circles are bound up with the creatures’ ability to see into the future, and that as Louise learns their language, she can see into the future, too. Villeneuve makes full use of film’s capacity to flash seamlessly forward and back - we do not at first realise that we are being shown the future instead of the past. It becomes clear that Louise’s life problems are unusually bound up with the Arrival event.
Debate rages between governments about how to respond to the creatures, amid civil unrest and global tensions, with Russia and China particularly twitchy. Louise argues that the creatures may not know the difference between a weapon and a tool. As another character observes: if you only give someone a hammer, everything becomes a nail.
Ultimately, Arrival is less about communicating with the aliens than with each other – internationally but also individually. Louise’s gradual understanding of what it means to experience time like her alien acquaintances will be central to how she lives her future. The gift for her and the rest of the world is to a glimpse a distinctively different way of being.
The film’s message is that difference is not about body shape or colour but language, culture and ways of thinking. It’s not about erasing that difference but communicating through it. This is what achieves the balance of familiarity and otherness that alien films depend upon – and it’s what makes Arrival one of the more memorable contributions to the genre in recent years. And without entirely giving the ending away, it’s not the Americans that come up with the right way forward, but a more unexpected country.