Arrival is a 2016 science-fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer. The film is based on the science fiction novella, “Story of Your Life,” written by American author Ted Chiang. The film stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, and Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber. The film earned an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. It also was nominated for eight categories at the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film’s soundtrack, which was composed by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, was also nominated for Best Soundtrack category at the 60th Grammy Awards.
The story of the movie begins with the arrival of 12 gigantic spaceships, which are also called heptapods because of their appearance, at random locations on Earth including the US, Russia, China, and Pakistan. Professor Louise Banks, who teaches linguistics at a university, gets a call from the government after the arrival of these otherworldly creatures. After listening to the tape of these creatures trying to communicate, she wants to see them directly. She and Ian Donnelly, who is a remarkable physicist, come to the base camp, start meetings with aliens, and try to find a way to communicate. Eventually, after many sessions with the creatures and a series of analyses with her crew, Louise begins to decode the language. She and her team find out that the creatures’ language doesn’t have linear grammar, unlike many human linguistic structures. Their language has a circular syntax, and the way they perceive time is also circular. The more she understands the language, the more she thinks like them and the way she interprets the time changes. She lives in a linear timeline but observes time in a non-linear way, and this changes everything or maybe nothing.
The aim of heptapods is to make us believe that we need a language revolution. To accomplish this, they are sending 12 spacecraft to 12 different nations that speak 12 different languages. If people want to decode their language, they have to work together. They have to share their studies, theories, or analyses with other nations because that is the only way to decode this language. As we see in the film, until the last scenes, all nations work together on the language and share their knowledge. Disappointingly, the presence of heptapods and their generosity is misunderstood by the world. World leaders see them as a threat to world peace and as dangerous creatures. The reasoning for this is not about their language or their approach to us; it is about our language. Humans have a tendency to group things into social groups, and these groups create an ”us vs. them” mentality, whether it is a football or a basketball game, a political discussion, or a war. There is always an “us” and a “them,” and the ”them” side is our opponent. We consider aliens, extraterrestrial creatures, or otherworldly creatures to be dangerous and not on our side. To us, they are ”them.”
The language of heptapods’ has a non-linear grammatical structure; on the other hand, no human language has a structure like that. This circular structure neither has a beginning nor an end. After spending weeks learning, thinking, or even dreaming in this language, Louise starts to perceive time in the way Heptapods’ do, which is non-linearly. Heptapods’ can witness more than one moment of their life at the same time, and they can envision their futures. While watching the film, we are being fooled by thinking that the scenes of Louise and her daughter are flashbacks; actually, they are flash forwards. We can conclude from this, the way that Louise thinks and perceives the world is being shaped by the language of Heptapods’. It is what is the heart of the movie; the language you speak and the way you perceive the world has a substantial connection.
The connection between the way you perceive the world and the language you speak is a linguistic concept called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the studies of American linguistics Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the early 20th century. Their theory became popular with the study that states that the Eskimo language has many words for snow. According to Whorf, because of the fact that Eskimos live in a cold and nival climate, they have an extensive vocabulary for the word “snow.” On the other hand, people who live in climates that experience rare or no snowfall have a comparatively smaller vocabulary related to the phenomenon, and usually, a single word is enough for them. As stated in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, since Eskimos have an extensive vocabulary for snow, they perceive, feel, and think differently than others. This hypothesis has two different versions: one is a strong version, the other relatively weaker. According to the strong version, the way people think and act is restricted by the language they speak. As per the weak version, language can affect our thoughts and actions only to a limited extent. As mentioned in the film, language is not just a means for us to express our feelings and thoughts; it is a living being that shapes our thoughts and the way we understand the world.
In real life, there is a study claims that because the Russian language has two different words for “light blue” and “dark blue,” Russians can distinguish between colors better. This study is just one of many conducted on how language shapes our thoughts. There are several books dealing with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In Ayn Rand’s science fiction novella Anthem, there is a dystopic society that has wiped out individuality by prohibiting personal pronouns like “I.” Ursula K. Le Guin, in her famous utopian science fiction novel The Dispossessed, deals with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a similar manner. In the book, there is a society in which no one has the right to possession, and the language of this society doesn’t have the possessive case.