“Arrival,” Listening, and Communicating
I suppose that I’m getting a bit of a reputation around these parts as being the sci-fi/pop culture geek, and today isn’t going to break the cycle.
The best science fiction is a way to look at the world we live in and ask ourselves what it means to be human–I know, it’s a tall order. So, when a movie comes along that fits the bill, I go out of my way to support it.
That movie is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Arrival is about a linguist who is recruited by the government to help communicate with mysterious aliens who have landed on Earth.
What follows is a beautiful, quiet, and measured reflection on communication and understanding. Not only does the story dive deeply into the science of communication (what elements of speech do you have to teach someone to convey that you are asking a question?), but it also stands as a more reflective metaphor for global society.
The aliens are passive; they allow humans to come into their ships once a day. Once there, the they observe, but make little attempt to start a conversation. Instead, they are willing to wait. They watch and listen, giving the humans time to comprehend their new visitors and determine their course of action.
And yet, humanity is unable to reciprocate this nonjudgmental observation. While the protagonists begin to make progress in communicating, other groups are fueling fear that Earth’s visitors may pose a threat. Even as the alien’s language is being deciphered, communication between humanity begins to shut down. First one country stops talking, then another, and another. Fear stops the dialogue between countries, and fear is the catalyst for the actions taken next.
A story like this couldn’t have come along at a better time. For me, this year has highlighted the importance of listening to others and being respectful of what you hear. Too often, it seems, we’re ready with a response without fully hearing what the other person is saying. Furthermore, it seems that we could benefit from more reflection on what others say. The linguist in Arrival doesn’t take the communications with the aliens lightly. She understands that she must work hard so that she understands the aliens without misinterpretation. Imagine what the world would look like if we all took more time to reflect on our communications.
I hope that this story is seen and discussed. I hope that the themes involved are explored in future stories. I hope that we listen, like the linguist in Arrival to those who seem foreign to us.
And when the aliens come, I hope we can be proud of the world we’ve created.