Nerds Review Things: Arrival


Ed.: Ok nerds I know you’ve both seen the Oscar nominated film Arrival and read the short story it is based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which means I also know you are both dying to share your thoughts. To save our Readers from unstructured ranting and raving I am willing to serve as moderator, posing questions to frame your discussion. I’ll also warn our Readers that spoilers for both the film and story appear throughout the post.


First, what did you think of the story?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I thought it was incredible. I loved the way that it interweaves the interactions with the heptapods with the mundane events of the child’s life. You know from the beginning the weight underlying those latter moments, and every time it cuts back to them, it’s heartbreaking. And then, ultimately, how the end makes you realize Louise has experienced her child’s life in exactly that state of awareness…it’s so beautifully told.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree that there is so much beauty found in the narrative style. I appreciate not only, as Sarah mentions, how Chiang plays with time to create moments of awe and of heartbreak but how this significantly represents the heptapods’ way of knowing, of experiencing too. Time is a cultural construct and I like how Chiang really pushes our boundaries of what we can accept in terms of how we may perceive the passage of time if time is non-linear. Mind blowing stuff really.

What did you think of the differences between the story and the film?

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I have to admit I liked the story a bit better, though they were both amazing. I think the film did a great job of translating the main themes and emotional beats of the short story on to the screen, but one thing I appreciated about the story is that it stayed small and intimate. The film did a couple of things to raise the sense of stakes that weren’t present in the book, and while I get that they were essentially necessary elements, some of them bugged a bit. While I didn’t hate the introduction of a threat that one of the other landing sites was going to go violent, I found the way it resolved, with Louise taking dictation from the Chinese General in the future, to be a bit too heavy-handed. The book just let the story be about Louise, her family, and the aliens, and I kind of loved that for a science fiction story.

A linguists’ point of annoyance: The book established clearly that Louise was a field linguist – someone who documents completely unknown languages, which would legitimately give her the skills needed to decipher the aliens’ communication. The movie takes a short cut and has her as the one selected for this task because she had security clearance after doing some Farsi translations for the army previously. But the skills needed to do a Farsi translation are not remotely the same as field linguistics. It doesn’t even require an actual linguist – just someone who speaks Farsi. A little detail, yes, but given how important her work is, I felt slighted in the description of her background and training as a linguist.

That said, I also want to say Amy Adams was fantastic and Jeremy Renner pulled off the adorably sexy nerd thing just fine.

Katie (The Archaeology One): It is incredibly difficult to live up to the reader’s expectations when it comes to translating story to film. I think this is a very successful adaptation overall. I agree with Sarah that the introduction of tension with China and its resolution was heavy handed. It was frankly sappy in a film that already had great moments of deep, significant emotion. I understand why they felt the need to add tension (alien = action afterall…or not) but understanding does not excuse a not-so-great choice. Amy Adams was fantastic. I needed a little more from Jeremy Renner’s character, which isn’t to say he wasn’t adorable nor sexy, I just missed some of the neat character development and physics stuff from the book (I get that this was probably difficult to incorporate).

Speaking of the cast and characters I think there are some things that can be said about gender and age as it is something much discussed in regards to representation. 

Katie (The Archaeology One): One of the interesting things is that Louise’s age is never established – this is because to do so would spoil the twist. This is not a problem when reading the book (you can envision Louise however you’d like) but when you have an actual living human playing a role it has to be addressed – we are not just our gender but also our age. It’s telling that the people behind the film never aged Louise. Now that I’m thinking about it I wonder if this is because we often don’t think of ourselves as AN age – I know I have an idea of what I look like, kind of a stock image of myself, but it doesn’t always match what I see in the mirror and also that when I think of myself as younger or older I don’t necessarily change my image of myself to reflect that difference in age.  One of the consequences of a change in how we perceive the world should also be a change in how one views oneself.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I think the sameness of Louise over the years does ultimately become a part of the commentary on how time and our experience of it are not uniform or universal – aging as a trope in stories does seem to mean one thing all the time, and it’s a thing situated within a view of time passing that this story destabilizes. That said, this was an element where my suspension of disbelief broke down – there are, after all, certain biological realities about when certain bodies are able to bear children. And while I was totally cool with the whole aliens-have-landed thing, asking me to buy that Louise would be established enough in her career to be chosen for this incredible responsibility and kickass opportunity while still also young enough to bear a child got a giant *NOPE* from this observer of academic life patterns.

How about that linguistic determinism?

Katie (The Archaeology One): From my non-linguistic perspective, I get why this theory is included and it does explain why the heptapods behave in the way they do.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): This is the thing that has all the linguists talking about this film, and the reaction is definitely mixed. Part of that is because a lot of linguists think the theory is absolute bunk, while others (like myself) who believe it has a lot of validity still see the version presented in the story as quite a bit more deterministic than we would see working in human languages. The idea that Louise’s mind would be so thoroughly re-wired because of her learning of this different language is a sticking point for a lot of people, as that’s not really something with any real traction in studies of language and cognition. But for me, that actually didn’t matter very much, because this was where I was entirely comfortable with suspension of disbelief. It’s actually like you say, from your non-linguistic perspective, it’s an idea that is needed to explain what matters about the story. It’s like from my non-physicist perspective, I accept that warp drive works, because if it doesn’t, the Enterprise isn’t going very far.

Now, I’d love to start a conversation about other ways linguists could save the world and/or become fascinating central characters in super interesting, intellectually challenging stories, that don’t rely on Sapir/Whorf, but if this is getting us so much attention, who am I to complain?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I agree with your last few points there Sarah – it’s really hard to complain when you finally have representation BUT we need to keep talking about this to make sure this isn’t the last time we see linguists in film. I know as archaeologists we always struggle with our love/hate relationship with Dr. Jones (and other “archaeologists”) depicted on screen but they also inspire so many of us to get into real archaeology. I DO think overall Hollywood can do better – if the box office of late and the 2017 Oscars are any indication (minus a few just gross exceptions), people really love diverse representation in terms of age, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, occupation, etc. So moar anthropologists pls! Also Louise could totally have been a person of colour. Can we stop defaulting to white?

A bit of a derailing there Biittner but I’ll let it slide this time because you are correct. Getting back to Anthropology…so…umm… were the aliens like anthropologists or what?

Katie (The Archaeology One): I would argue no, because of my interpretation of their “role” in the story (I’m going to deliberately ignore the film’s take on why they came to Earth). The heptapods arrive on Earth because it is part of their understanding of what must pass/has already passed. I’m struggling to describe this because the story does it so well but also because I am still trying to process the implications of non-linear time and experience myself. That’s the twist – that Louise is not remembering her child, she is experiencing her child. As Louise learns heptapod she begins to think and therefore live as a heptapod does.

I also think the film makers (and some readers, particularly those of us in the west) struggle with a being that lacks agency so we look for purpose – the whole point of learning to communicate with the heptapods is initially presented as finding out what the heptapods want. Spoiler: the answer is they want nothing. So the heptapods are given agency (must give language to humans so they can help us in three thousand years) rather than simply being. To suggest they were anthropologists is to suggest they had the intention of studying humans, which they simply did not. Not on screen. Not in the short story.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I agree that I found it paradoxically more satisfying in the story, when we were left without explanation for their visit. It speaks so much more clearly not only to this radically different way of understanding action/experience/agency, but also to the constant unknowns of the forces that do the most to shape our everyday lives. I think our dear editor posed this question to us somewhat facetiously, mostly to get us to think about whether it matters why they were there or not, and how that might relate to the strange arrivals that we, as anthropologists, engage in through our studies. So while I think in the end there’s no case to be made that the heptapods were anthropologically motivated, I do think there is a lot to say about anthropology coming out of the movie.

Also, given that Jeremy Renner the physicist was given so little to do as a physicist, maybe we could argue that he needed to be an adorably nerdy anthropologist to support Louise’s linguistic efforts.

Katie (The Archaeology One): I’ll support a Renner as anthropologist position because reasons.

Any final thoughts or comments? 

Katie (The Archaeology One): The written language in the film is very beautiful so major kudos to the designers behind it. I was underwhelmed by the heptapods themselves (looked too much like the hands they were likely modeled on; I needed more angular abstraction in their form) and thought the sequence where Louise actually enters the heptapods’ room was lame (too much use of the Galadriel “all shall love me and despair” glowing in the fog filter on Adams there). I need to re-read the story and the whole compilation it is included in because it’s all so so good. I can easily see myself using parts of the film in class – heptapod as the new con-lang. I’d rate the film six heptapods out of seven. The story is unquestionably a seven out of seven.

Sarah (The Linguistic One): I had the odd experience of almost simultaneously reading the book and watching the film. I rarely have enough energy after my kids go to bed to stay awake for an entire movie, so when I was about halfway through the story, I rented the movie and watched half of it before falling asleep. I finished the story the next day, then watched the rest of the film. This really made the differences between them stand out, and may have made me feel more negative about the movie than I might have otherwise, because of those clearly Hollywood details. What I really wish had been made more clear in the film, though, was the fact that the heptapods written language was in fact an entirely different system from the spoken language. This is something that doesn’t exist in human language at all – all of our written forms are designed to represent speech, not to function as full linguistic systems in their own right, so the relationship between symbol and meaning in our writing is indirect, while for the heptapods, it’s direct. They are essentially inherently multilingual, knowing both their written language and their spoken one. This is such a massive difference, and it’s given really only a throwaway line in the movie (to the point that many linguists I know express frustration because no true field linguist would ever focus on written forms rather than spoken ones, and the choice to do so only makes sense given what Louise realizes about that connection). It’s an example of the incredibly creative way that Chiang, in the whole collection of stories, thinks about language and inserts “but what ifs” into his considerations of how humans use language. Solid seven heptapods for the story version for me, 5.5 for the movie adaptation.

Thanks nerds! 

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