This weekend, I watched the movie ‘Arrival‘. It starts off with the now common scenario of several floating ships appearing in the skies around the world. But unlike most movies in this mold, it focuses on humanity’s efforts to communicate with the aliens and understand why they’ve come. The protagonist is an expert in linguistics.
I found this movie to be uncommonly intelligent and high quality science fiction, of a type that we rarely see in cinema. I’ve heard it’s won and been nominated for various awards. In my opinion, it’s well deserved. I highly recommend it.
That said, I’m going to quibble with a couple of its aspects. I won’t spoil anything that you wouldn’t see in the first act, but if having even bits of that spoiled bothers you, you may want to skip this post until you’ve seen it.
I’m not going to quibble with the existence of the aliens, or why they arrived when they did. A common criticism I have of alien invasion movies is that the aliens usually choose to show up when we can resist them, rather than any of the previous 4.54 billion years when the planet was a sitting duck. But I actually think the movie has a good answer for that, which I won’t spoil.
Okay, first quibble. The movie goes out of its way to portray the aliens as utterly, well, alien. On the one hand, I very much appreciate this. Too often, media sci-fi portray aliens as humans with maybe an extra bump on their forehead or in overall humanoid form but maybe with reptilian skin or something, together with all too human emotions and attitudes. Historically, some of this came from technological constraints on what could be shown. But with CG technology being what it is today, this excuse, still somewhat plausible for television, doesn’t really cut it for high production movies.
That said, in its attempt to make the aliens profoundly different, I think the movie ignores some simple realities. Extraterrestrial life would undoubtedly be very different from Earth life, but the laws of physics put limits on just how strange it could be.
For example,we never see eyes on the aliens. (Or at least I couldn’t ever make out any.) Now, it’s possible that an alien that evolved in a consistently dark or opaque environment, such as an underground sea or in a thick opaque atmosphere, might never evolve vision.
But we see the aliens communicating visually, which implies some kind of ability to take in information from electromagnetic radiation (light). And eyes weren’t a one time mutation in Earth history. From what I’ve read, they evolved several times in independent evolutionary lines. In other words, eyes are one of the features that evolution tends to converge on. The aliens didn’t have to be portrayed with two stereoscopic eyes. They could have had many, like on spiders.
The other is the overall body plan of the aliens. They don’t come across as having much dexterity. But as I’ve noted before, the only civilization producing species on this planet needed more than intelligence, but also the ability to physically manipulate the environment. It’s why a primate species currently rules the planet instead of a cetacean, elephantine, corvine, or other type of intelligent species.
I’m not saying that the aliens needed to have humanoid body plans. Ant-like bodies with prehensile limbs might have done the trick. But the movie aliens needed to have better physical abilities than what was portrayed. Their portrayed bodies might have been dexterous in a liquid environment, similar to cephalopods, but that didn’t appear to be the environment they were in.
My second quibble is with the effort to communicate with the aliens. If you’ve seen the movie, you understand this issue’s place in the plot, but the initial decision to translate written language doesn’t make that much sense. As Seth Shostak of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has pointed out, it makes a lot more sense to attempt initial communication with pictures.
This makes sense when you consider that the earliest human writing evolved from using pictures to convey concepts. Over time, the pictures got streamlined into symbols for each word or concept. It was thousands of years before the idea of letters standing in for individual speech sounds developed. Attempting to jump over all that with an utterly alien mind seems like the hard way to do it.
Of course, conveying complex information with pictures wouldn’t itself be easy. For example, how do you get across the main question the humans had for the aliens, “Why have you come?” But a series of pictures showing the alien ships approaching humans, followed by alternating pictures of humans dead or alive might have given the aliens a quick chance to make their intentions clearer. And once you had a basic form of communication going, a common symbolic vocabulary could be worked out, eventually allowing more sophisticated exchanges.
A much tougher challenge might be if the aliens didn’t have visual senses. Imagine trying to build a common vocabulary with a bat like alien that sensed the world through echolocation, or one that thought and moved on vastly different time scales, such as conscious trees. But even then, we’d still live in the same universe, and there would have to be some common overlapping ways of perceiving the world. It might come down to small model statues arranged in sequences to convey scenarios.
Of course, it’s always possible to engage in rationalizations to explain away these quibbles with the movie. And as I indicated above, this is a movie that is far more intelligent than your typical sci-fi film. Not the least because it gave me an excuse to talk about alien body plans and communication strategies 🙂