The Fundamentals of Alien Grammar: A Review of the Movie Arrival

Finding myself without much to do on a Saturday night—ignoring deadlines—I pressed play on a movie I had long been wanting to watch, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 science fiction masterpiece, Arrival. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, the film tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, and how she maneuvers communication with the alien creatures inside one of twelve space-pods to make contact with Earth.

The best way to introduce Arrival to an audience would be as an alien movie - for those who don’t like alien movies. The two extraterrestrial beings aboard the pod always remain partially hidden in a sea of fog behind a glass-like wall through which Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist, attempt to communicate with them. The plot of the film appears simple: the government enlists the help of a linguistics professor and a physicist in order to establish a rapport between the two species in order to determine the heptapod aliens’ purpose on Earth, uncovering any advanced technological knowledge they may hold along the way. However, Villeneuve succeeds in using the story as a conduit to comment on how our own human-to-human communication is such a precipice. Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to learn the aliens’ logograms is paved with many barriers in understanding. Meaning is nuanced and one must be careful of what message one’s words convey. If humans still struggle to understand and relate to each other, how could we ever do so with beings not of our world?

The storyline is centred around Dr. Louise Banks, who goes on to become an astute and attentive master of interspecies communication. Adams’ embodiment of this linguist was captivatingly heart-wrenching. In a world where most humans automatically take a defensive stance towards their intergalactic visitors, Dr. Banks offers herself up to the opportunity and realizes the magnitude that her actions have in her interactions with the heptapod aliens. Where her contemporaries view them as threats, Dr. Banks views them as equals and believes Earth can benefit from their knowledge and way of thinking. Adams’ role was equal parts tender and stern, leading to a convincing portrayal of a scientist who is not blinded by prestige, but rather cognizant of the honour and duty that she has in ensuring that language only be used for peace and understanding.

As a linguistics student, I was amazed by the process undertaken by Banks to crack the code and understand how the heptapod language works. The aliens communicate through logograms: circular symbols that have no correlation with their spoken language. Insofar as human languages go, this is unheard of. Banks’ approach towards understanding the alien language’s grammar and lexicon by looking for patterns in the written language’s symbols is similar to the real-life methods used by linguists. Banks builds a rudimentary lexicon by presenting the aliens with simple words or phrases and receiving their symbol’s interpretation of those concepts. The film does take a sizable jump from the introductory scenes in determining what the symbol for ‘human’ is, to scenes where just some short interactive exercises allow Banks to have simple question-and-answer exchanges with the aliens. Villeneuve did have to take an artistic liberty in his film to establish a level of communication, so inquisitive minds may feel as if they are grasping for an explanation when it comes to understanding how Dr. Banks learned the heptapod language.

Overall, Arrival is a film unlike any other of its genre. It portrays aliens in a unique perspective, opening up what is often considered a horror trope into a vessel for critical thinking. The film would not have touched the hearts and minds of so many people worldwide were it not for Amy Adams’ dedicated role of a linguist trying to use language to promote peace and understanding. The film is accurate in its implementation of deductive linguistic methods. While creative liberties were taken for the sake of storytelling, they do not posit outlandish ideas that completely distort the study of language. Overall, Arrival lives up to its expectations of being a film that has the ability to suspend its viewers in the magic of cinema. Linguists and language nerds rejoice: our time to be heroes has come!