A Sci-Fi Lesson for Real-Life Cultural Understanding

Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie Arrival. Read at your own discretion.  

How a Hollywood movie can help interculturalists teach connection

One of the best science-fiction movies of the past decade has a beautiful lesson for people who strive to better communicate across linguistic and cultural borders. While the central theme of Arrival ostensibly is that of the communication challenge between humans and aliens, the underlying message of the film is more terrestrial: The only chance for humans to solve the problems of mankind is to improve and eventually master the dialog between countries and cultures, and to improve cultural understanding.

In Arrival, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are tasked to decipher the language of seven-limbed aliens (heptapods) who arrive on Earth in twelve lens-shaped spaceships and whose mode of communication is unlike any other form known to humans. Banks and Donnelly are brought to one of the spacecrafts were they make contact with two of the aliens. These heptapods make whale-like sounds, and Banks recognizes that they have a written language of complicated circular symbols, which they “3D write” in space by emitting a levitating, ink-like substance from the tips of their limbs. The linguist begins to study the symbols which correspond to a basic vocabulary.

Language – a weapon or a tool?

When the team of scientists try to find out what the aliens want (“Why are you here?”), their answer is translated as to meaning: “offer weapon.” A similar translation – “use weapon” – is made by one of the teams at the other eleven spaceship landing sites around the globe. Fearing that the aliens might pose a potential threat, other nations close down their communication on the project, and some of them start preparing military interventions against the spaceships. But Banks argues that the symbol interpreted as “weapon” might have an alternative translation, such as “tool” or “technology”. It is less a tool of force and more of a gift of understanding. 

As the plot thickens the scientist team discovers that the message they receive from the heptapods is only a twelfth of the full “gift” the aliens want to give to the humans. Only if the decoding specialists in all the locations cooperate, will humanity be able to fully understand the significance of the extraterrestrial offering: a nonlinear concept of time. As one would expect from a Hollywood production, this turns out to be virtually impossible with nations being at odds with each other and disagreeing on how to solve the alien riddle. As the enigmatic story unfurls, Arrival reveals some seemingly paradoxical twists and a disarmingly emotional ending. 

Two concepts as intercultural lessons

From an intercultural perspective the movie offers two fascinating concepts: First, the humanitarian ideal of a world which works together in unity to address global concerns, regardless of political, philosophical, religious, or linguistic differences. By distributing their language in pieces to different countries and demanding that they collaborate to assemble it, the aliens are also seeding humankind with empathy, pushing them together. It’s a remarkably hopeful message in times of global uncertainty, where isolationism and nationalism are on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The second idea in Arrival is a play on the somewhat worn out Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which argues that language doesn’t just give people a way to express their thoughts – it influences or even determines those thoughts. In other words: the language we speak is inextricably tied to the reality we experience. On the flip side, the evolution of a language is shaped by the culture and environment its speakers live in. No matter where linguists stand on Sapir-Whorf today, it makes for exciting story telling in the movie. 

Linear vs. nonlinear time

In the world of the heptapods, language is not bound by the past, present or future. It is free from the human boundaries of time. Halfway through the movie, Donnelly asks Banks if she dreams in foreign languages, and indeed, the more she understands the heptapods’ communication, the more she starts to see and dream vivid images of herself with her daughter. The dream world merges with a flat chronology that changes Banks’ perception of time and memory. 

One of the reasons why Banks and Donnelly initially struggle with deciphering the heptapods’ communication stems from their own well-entrenched mode of language. As humans we write and speak sentences in a literal line (whether from left to right, or vice versa), where the images we depict are dependent on the way we order our words.

The extraterrestrials, however, rely on a form of semiotic communication that tells a full story unbound by time in one fell swoop. As a matter of fact, the ends of their circular symbols never fully touch, which might imply the infinite possibilities inherent in their mode of communication. 

Finally, as Louise Banks unlocks the enigma of the heptapods, a third intercultural lesson surfaces: Only after she chooses to immerse herself in the linguistic experience of the heptapods and only after she allows herself to be open to a completely foreign experience does she understand how the alien culture thinks, feels, and acts.

Arrival may not be a “typical” intercultural movie. It is a terrific one.

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