Arrival Recap

So, here are some initial thoughts on Arrival. Spoiler alert is most definitely in effect!

Twitter Arrival Movie Poster Aug 16 2016

Things I loved:

  • No stealth female protagonists here, but an actual, full-time, proper female lead who isn’t there for her boobs and butt, but brains!
  • Top notch plotting, dialogue, and characters, all in all. Also the directing, sets, music, and effects were impressive.
  • Some of the trailers make it look like the linguistics lecture in the very beginning is in a huge auditorium with only a handful of students attending, which might have meant that the movie university was going to have a neglected linguistics department or lukewarm students. Not so. There was a good reason why students didn’t show up, i.e., the alien landing.
  • Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) was treated as an expert almost universally. Notable exceptions were a CIA bloke at the Montana camp and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the male lead. The latter, upon meeting Dr. Banks for the very first time, quoted something she’d written and said something to the effect of “Too bad it’s wrong.” Tut tut. He got over himself, though.
  • Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the army liaison for the civilian consultants, was an actual ally to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, not an antagonist. It would’ve been so easy to take the lazy road. (Then again, they did take it with the antagonistic CIA bloke.)
  • The complexities of language and communication were explained with easily understandable comparisons.
  • Languages were treated as the complex systems that they are, i.e., other levels beyond the lexicon got attention.
  • Many of the English translations of the heptapods’ language were messy (e.g., “Abbott is death process” = “Abbot is dying”). As a non-native English speaker who operates with two languages on a daily basis, I found it very realistic. There are times when quick and dirty is what you need, and others when you can spend more time pondering. In a first contact situation where political and military pressures are high, there might not even be a need to polish the English syntax as long as the message is unambiguous.
  • Some of the aliens’ language was subtitled. I’m a visual person; in addition, I can’t always hear everything in noisy environments such as movie theaters or restaurants. ❤ subtitles!
  • The story is very explicit about the need for people work together to solve problems without feeling preachy. YMMV.
  • A male hero doesn’t punch an alien in the face at the end. I’m all for punching the bad guys—now and then. I explicitly do not want all of my reading and viewing rehashing the same old stories over and over, because SFF is explicitly about examining other possibilities. It feels (’cause I haven’t seen any statistics or anything) like lately we’ve mostly gotten the punchy kind of SFF. It was so nice to face a different fare for a change.

Things I didn’t think were quite as successful:

  • Only one prominent female speaking role. For realz. Surely you’re better than that, writing team.
  • The conflation of linguistics and translating. Of course the two disciplines are related, but each comes with its own set of principles and tools.
  • Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly each got their own team in Montana, but the teams were hugely underused. They might have been completely omitted for all the difference they made.
  • Dr. Banks’s visions affected her thinking and behavior, but weren’t integrated into the dialogue terribly well. The one time they tried (“Are you dreaming in their language?”), she responded very defensively, and the matter was dropped without further exploration.
  • Non-linear time as part of the plot. It’s a very difficult concept to pull off successfully. I haven’t come across a story yet where I think it works to its full effect. (I might feel differently about “Story of Your Life.” Note to self: Find it & read.) Even so, the execution in Arrival was one of the most elegant I’ve encountered, and the reveals were well-paced.
  • At the end, the aliens indicate that they’re sharing their full language with Dr. Banks because in 3,000 years they will need humanity, but that was it. What a cliffhanger!

I’ll finish with a couple of links:

How the writer of ‘Arrival’ spent a decade getting his sci-fi Oscar contender made. An interview with screenwriter Erik Heisserer that sheds light to the difficulties in getting a movie project greenlit and adapting the inspiration story.

‘Arrival’ Author’s Approach To Science Fiction? Slow, Steady And Successful. An interview with Ted Chiang, whose short story “Story of Your Life” (1998) was the basis for Arrival.

Ted Chiang, the science fiction genius behind Arrival. Another focus piece on Chiang.

Image via Arrival Movie on Twitter

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Arrival—Establishing Common Ground

A new Arrival screen ad is out! (Published today, in fact!) In an atypical move, the trailer (if you can call it that) starts with several completely unrelated clips of people in an experimental situation:

Arrival (2016) – “Common Ground” – Paramount Pictures by Paramount Pictures

…except that, of course, the clips aren’t unrelated. They show two strangers with no shared language trying to figure out what they have in common. It’s quite clever; see for yourself.

Two weeks to go till opening night!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

On First Contact Communication in Arrival

The movie summer and early fall have been rather dry, as has the actual weather here. I’m eagerly awaiting November when Doctor Strange (six weeks to go!) and Arrival (seven weeks!) open a hopefully more thirst-quenching end of the year. And the more I hear about Arrival, the more intriguing it sounds.

Mark Liberman at Language Log was asked to provide a linguist’s perspective on first-encounter communication strategies. His post is both lengthy and enlightening.

RA Olea Flickr Sign Language Friend

Specifically, he answers the question “An alien is standing in front of you, apparently peaceably. What is the first thing you try, in an attempt to communicate with it?”

The meatiest bit is this:

“There’s no guarantee that their senses and their modes of action are going to be a good fit to ours. They might communicate via skin color changes like cuttlefish, except maybe theirs are only visible in the ultraviolet. Or maybe they can modulate and sense electric fields, like electric eels. They might use gestural and postural changes in a body that’s very different from ours, or rapid morse-code-like modulations of sound at a dozen different frequencies independently and simultaneously. Maybe pheremone-like chemical signals are a crucial part of the process.

“Whatever the modalities of communication, it’s quite likely that we won’t be able to imitate them without building some specialized apparatus. And it’s quite possible that it would be hard even to recognize the fact that they’re communicating with one another, before we even get to the point of trying to understand and imitate.

“More likely, the process would be:

(1) Persuade them not to kill us, and vice versa;
(2) Persuade (or coerce) them to let us observe their within-species interactions, or vice versa;
(3) Design and build systems for recording, analyzing, and synthesizing their communicative signals (or wait for them to do the same thing for ours);
(4) Use those systems to engage in a sort of “monolingual demonstration”, and hope that we can come to understand them and communicate with them to some extent.”

According to Liberman, Ted Chiang’s short story “Stories of Your Life” (that the movie is based on) also mentions “in a mild way” a few of these issues:

“[Protagonist, linguist Dr. Louise Banks] needs to use a ‘sound spectrograph’ to analyze the aliens’ utterances, which sound to her ears ‘vaguely like […] a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur’, and she needs recording and playback to communicate in the other direction, since they don’t recognize her attempts to imitate their speech.”

Visit Language Log for more.

On the basis of the Arrival trailers released so far it’s hard to say whether the movie will be focusing on linguistics specifically, or whether the intellectual mystery will be rounded up into a more generic academic exercise. It does look like the script at least attempts to stay with Chiang’s story. Like Liberman, I’m very interested to see how much of the linguistics makes it on screen.

Image: sign language : friend via Flickr (2008; colored pencil on charcoal paper; by R.A. Olea) CC BY 2.0

On, of, and about languages.

Impressions on Arrival Trailer #1

Have you heard of Arrival? It’s a forthcoming science fiction movie about a first contact situation on earth, and the more I read about it the more curious I get.

Twitter Arrival Movie Poster Aug 16 2016

The story is based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” adapted to screen by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Chiang won both the Nebula and Sturgeon Awards with it.

The main interest for me is that Dr. Louise Banks, the character played by Amy Adams, is a linguist. Since we don’t generally get much screen time, it’s exciting, as is having languages / linguistics as a story focus. There’s also a little bit of Nordic involvement: the score is by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The first official trailer is looking great:

Arrival Trailer #1 (2016) – Paramount Pictures by Paramount Pictures

I love the fact that for a change the UFO that lands in the U.S. touches down in Montana, not New Frigging York City. That horse is thoroughly, properly dead, ladies and gentlemen of Hollywood. Thank you for not going there.

Judging by the trailer, the movie also avoids one of my pet peeves. It looks like finding a way to communicate with the aliens is going to take a lot of effort and a good, long while. We get glimpses of various graphics on computer screens, but it’s clear that the bulk of the work consists of human effort assisted by computers. In other words, people are doing the actual analyzing while computers number-crunch. Compare it, for instance, with the mothership scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a clip of the scene here). As fascinating as the tonal-color language is, I’m so disappointed with the perfunctory and hand-wavy treatment the linguistic mystery got. I do hope that the Arrival trailer is accurate in acknowledging the effort that not only communication but of all kinds of intellectual work require.

And it may indeed be: The USA Today sneak peek quotes the male lead Jeremy Renner: “It’s big and there are thriller elements and tension, but it’s going to lean much more into a thinking person’s film.” There are also hints that Adams’ character will begin dreaming in the aliens’ language, which is a phenomenon I find fascinating. (I sometimes dream in multiple languages. The highest count I can remember is four.)

I discovered one interesting factoid. In the U.S. trailer, Dr. Banks can be heard commenting on the emerging common language like this: “We need to make sure that they [aliens] understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy, and sometimes one can be both.”

The international trailer suggests a different story angle, however. Have a look:

ARRIVAL – International Trailer (HD) via Sony Pictures Entertainment

In it, instead of “[w]e need to make sure that they understand,” Dr. Banks says: “We don’t know if they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool [my emphasis].”

I don’t know what to make of the decision, and I can’t wait to see which one the movie actually goes with. Fortunately I don’t have that long to wait: the U.S. release date is November 11, 2016.

Image via Arrival Movie on Twitter

On, of, and about languages.

Racism and Ancient Aliens

The notion that ancient monuments, myths, and artworks reflect the visitation of Earth by alien beings is not one that is taken very seriously in the world of scholarly history, nor much outside of it, either. Still, it is one of those fictions, like astrology or vaccine scares, that continue to float through popular culture and appeal to some people because they offer simple answers to difficult questions. Who built the pyramids? Who drew the Nazca lines? Aliens!

It’s easy to dismiss ancient aliens as just another silly idea that most people don’t take seriously, but even silly ideas can be insidious. How we think about people in the past shapes and is shaped by how we think about people in the present. Especially when we’re looking to the past to inspire works of speculative fiction, we have to be conscious of the assumptions that underlie our ways of interpreting and explaining history. As harmless and even goofy as the ancient alien hypothesis may seem, it operates on a logic that is fundamentally racist and entangled with imperialist ideology.

160530racismI’ve written before about the dynastic race theory of Egyptian history. In brief, Europeans of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries didn’t believe that Africans were capable of creating an advanced civilization on their own, so they invented a superior race of foreign invaders who they believed had conquered and ruled Egypt, bringing their advanced culture with them. This theory justified European imperialism by creating a historical precedent: the brown people of the world needed superior white rulers to teach them how to be civilized, both in the past and the present.

The racism and imperialism inherent in dynastic race theory is obvious to us today, but the ancient alien hypothesis rests on the same assumption: that those people couldn’t possibly have been capable of creating such sophisticated artworks, monuments, and cultures on their own. Although ancient alien crackpots can conjure little green men to explain anything from the past, you’ll notice that the popular examples are all things created by non-Europeans: the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya and Aztecs, the Nazca lines, the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) stone heads, and so forth. You don’t often hear arguments that aliens built the Parthenon in Greece or the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

(The one European monument that regularly gets the ancient alien treatment is Stonehenge, which is a complicated case. The invasion theory of European history, which also clings on in popular culture despite being thoroughly discredited in scholarship, posits that the people who built Stonehenge were overrun and replaced by invaders from continental Europe, which makes them not really like modern Europeans and Euro-Americans. Some versions of the invasion theory even explicitly call the pre-invasion population non-white.)

But, some might say, that’s just because we know who built the Parthenon and we don’t know who built the pyramids, so the alien hypothesis is just filling in a mystery. Except that we do know. Egyptians built the pyramids. Mayans built the Maya temples and Aztecs built the Aztec temples. The Nazca people created the Nazca lines and Polynesians erected the stone heads on Rapa Nui. We have a pretty good understanding of how and why they all did those things, too, even if we’re still piecing together some of the details. None of this has ever seriously been in doubt. There is no mystery, just a reluctance on the part of white westerners to acknowledge the cultural attainments of non-white non-westerners. No aliens need apply.

The ancient alien hypothesis does much the same work for a modern audience that dynastic race theory did for an earlier one: it reassures us descendants of European imperialists and colonizers that the peoples our ancestors conquered, subjugated, and destroyed weren’t really up to snuff anyway. They didn’t build great monuments, figure out sophisticated mathematics and physics, or organize labor on a massive scale, space aliens did it for them. They didn’t compose great works of literature and mythology, they just handed down hazily-remembered stories about men from the sky. Invoking ancient aliens saves us the trouble of respecting other peoples’ cultures or acknowledging the tragedy of their destruction by assuring us that they don’t really count.

Thoughts for writers

We have a responsibility to the people of the past and to our audience in the present. False interpretations of history have underlain some of the worst atrocities that human beings have committed against one another. We have a duty not to perpetuate harmful assumptions, even when they come dressed up like silly alien stories. This duty lies upon us even when we aren’t doing serious scholarly study and are just mining history for interesting storytelling material. The stories we tell matter.

This doesn’t mean that ancient aliens are off-limits for storytelling. I have no doubt that there are good fantasy and sci-fi stories to be told about aliens visiting Earth in the past, stories that don’t deny the agency, ingenuity, and persistence of ancient peoples. Let’s see some of those.

Image by Erik Jensen, based on “Ancient Aliens Guy” via Know Your Meme

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.