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Movie Review: Arrival

Friday, November 25, 2016 - 08:30

Lauri asked me to save this movie to see with her in NYC, which wasn't hard given the distractions of the last couple weeks. (My book release. Of course I'm talking about my book release.)

Arrival tells the story of twelve vast and mysterious UFOs arriving in scattered locations across the earth, the beginnings of attempts to communicate with the inhabitants, and the impending political disaster as those communications go semantically awry in entirely predictable ways. The central character is linguist Dr. Louise Banks, with hard-science colleage Ian Donnelly as her foil. The central characters are completed by an army colonel who is overseeing the U.S. contact mission...and, I suppose, by the two aliens that Banks interacts with.

There are a lot of pluses in this movie. As a linguist myself, I have to say that they did a good portayal of the nature and process of linguistic acquisition unmediated by a common third language. At least in the flavor, though of course the timeline was vastly sped up from even what a computer-assisted process could manage. There was also a certain glossing over of the extreme luck that human and alien communication both operated on aural and visual channels rather than any of the less filmable possibilities.

The aliens were satisfyingly alien, both in concept and execution. Banks's frustration in trying to explain to the military the difficulting in what they expected her to produce in a single session was quite realistic both in its flavor and particulars. ("What is your purpose here on Earth?" Do you have any idea how freaking complicated and subjective an utterance that is?) I was a bit surprised, given that visual communication was a major tool, that more wasn't done with pictorial representation in order to  build vocabulary. (This is where the unrealistic time-compression comes in. Very hard to develop a grasp of abstract concepts without building on concrete ones.) Anyway, enough about the linguistics.

The climax relies on an interesting (and very SFF-nal) twist on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. One might say the strongest of strong S-W interpretations. To say more would be a spoiler. That twist ties in the running subplot involving Banks's memories of her daughter who dies young of some unspecified condition (the visuals suggest cancer) and of the related break-up of her marriage.

And here comes my one philosophical gripe with the movie (because the linguistic gripes are more logistical than philosophical). Even though we get a very central female protagonist, her story is framed in terms of family, motherhood, and emotional relationships. And we get the classic gendered contrast between the female humanities expert and the male hard-science expert. Furthermore, although there's a good gender balance in the tertiary characters (random crowd scenes, people on tv screens) and although the scenes between Banks and her daughter are key to the movie (though perhaps the sole basis for passing the Bechdel-Wallace test), there's a noticable lack of women among the crowd of secondary figures involved in the contact encampment. One can no longer use the military nature of that context as an excuse for the omission of women. Skimming through the cast listings, of the twelve roles listed with personal names (rather than occupations or functions), only Banks and her daughter are female. So: good job on having a female protagonist in an only-tangentially-relationship-centered movie. But Arrival is still rather marginal in terms of supporting and normalizing women's roles in movies and in expanding beyond what are still highly gendered dramatic functions.

Beyond that gripe, I really enjoyed the movie and will be mulling over the plot implications of the conclusion. It's unfortunate that I can't talk about those implications without entirely spoiling it for those who haven't seen it yet. So go see it, and then we can talk.