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THE LANGUAGE OF LOSS, TRUST, AND HEPTAPODS
But what if you weren't trying to communicate with another human, but rather with a completely alien species from another planet? This is an issue science fiction has considered for a very long time. And yet, when it comes to film, first-contact communication has generally been, to use an American vernacular phrase, a piece of cake.
In one of the most famous alien visitor flicks, 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, two beings land their saucer in the heart of Washington, D.C. One is an oversized robot; a strong and silent type with mad skills for neutralizing human weaponry. (This is a talent frequently needed, as Americans are portrayed as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later bunch.) But the real intergalactic emissary is a handsome humanoid in a sleek jumpsuit, who announces in the Queen's plummy English, that he and his massive pal "have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill."
Michael Rennie's Klaatu grows impatient with humanity's "childish jealousies" and "stupidity." But he certainly has no language barrier in expressing that fact to his American hosts. He even, more or less, blends in with the humans at Mrs. Crockett's Washington boarding house while he's on the lam. Although his landlady does peg him as an out-of-towner, since she prides herself on spotting a New England accent from a mile away.
There's no mistaking Keanu Reeves's accent for one from either England or New England. But he does, as Klaatu, speak perfectly passable English when he lands in New York, in his 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. He just adds a monotonic accent to his already flattened acting voice—and, voilà! He's an alien from the cosmos community who can easily express his disapproval of human environmental rapaciousness in English, and even in Mandarin.
When Steven Spielberg released his groundbreaking Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, he was willing to forgo portraying an alien species as completely relatable humanoids who arrived capable of speaking the local lingo. When his visitors finally appeared in all their glowing glory, at Devils Tower in Wyoming, their communication was a bit imprecise, as communicated in numerical sequences, sonorous musical tones, and a touch of sign language. Goodwill was nevertheless the rule of the day (despite the fact that the aliens had been kidnapping humans for years). After landing at the base of the western butte they make friends easily and take off with a few new human samples—including the film's obsessed hero, played by Richard Dreyfuss—as a parting gift.
Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis directed the Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart screenplay based on Carl Sagan's Contact (1997). At that point, we were back to a humanoid alien, or, at least, an alien presenting himself through a shimmering holographic projection of a human. In fact, in an especially schmaltzy twist [spoiler alert!] the interplanetary ambassador assumes the form and manner of the scientist heroine's long dead but deeply loved papa (played by David Morse). How's that for making an alien species engaging and accessible? Space/Time Traveler Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) finds her alien contact so approachable, she immediately falls into his paternalistic arms.
It's interesting that many people have seen parallels between the film Contact and the movie I am about to discuss, Arrival. It's an understandable correlation, I suppose. Both movies have as their protagonists women scholars with a quiet demeanor, a passion for their prospective fields, and a brave openness to discovery. And both women will let nothing stand in their way to make a meaningful connection with sentient beings from another planet.
In Arrival, the aliens are kind enough to come to Earth. But are they kind? Twelve gigantic rock-like, and yet oddly graceful, objects fly to twelve spots throughout our planet and hover above land and sea. These near-landings engender widespread concern (even panic) around the globe. Where did they come from and what do they want? The latter being the most pressing question. And since Earth has no one leader, one language, or one approach to any issue, each spaceship is dealt with differently. Scholars and military members from around the world are gathered near the ships. In the U.S., the visitation site is over a verdant pasture in Montana (not so very far, one assumes, from Spielberg's Devils Tower). Contact is being coordinated by a cool and collected Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker).
Looking for the best people for his team, Colonel Weber swoops his chopper down at the waterside property of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). She is a brilliant translator and linguist who is eager to take on the challenge of deciphering a language that sounds like a mix of thumps, clicks, flutters, and the groaning song of humpback whale. Dr. Banks will lead the linguistics team, and leading the science side of the operation is a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, playing the secondary supportive role to which female "leads" are usually relegated).
Albeit unlikely, it is possible that some of my gentle readers have yet to see Arrival. So, perhaps it is better if I do not go into great detail about the look and demeanor of the alien visitors. But suffice it to say that they do not resemble dapper Michael Rennie in anyway whatsoever. How could they, when they are referred to as Heptapods.
I would hazard a guess that the majority of F&SF readers have also read the brilliant and very moving novella upon which Arrival is based. That award-winning tale by Ted Chiang, "Story of Your Life," with its shifting memory sequences and frequent discussion of linguistics and science, seemed far too cerebral and complex to be captured in a modern movie; especially a movie released by a major studio at a time when film sf is completely dominated by comic superheroes, wizards, and nouveau space cowboys. Luckily, Arrival was not made by a major studio. It was made independently and only acquired by Paramount after being financed by Shawn Levy's 21 Laps Entertainment and several other producing cohorts. The filmmakers behind the movie are also unexpected. The film was directed by a French-Canadian helmer named Denis Villeneuve, who has made wide-ranging films (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) more oriented toward storytelling than blockbuster ambitions. And although screenwriter Eric Heisserer is no stranger to fantasy, he was heretofore pigeonholed as a horror writer with movies like Lights Out, The Thing, and Final Destination 5.
Both the writer and director of Arrival committed themselves to the spirit and much of the content of Ted Chiang's story. And so their movie—one of the best and brainiest sf films in recent memory—depicts the linguistic and scientific challenge of human scholars to understand and be understood by creatures from another world. And it interlaces that with the story of a mother's memories of nurturing a cherished daughter to young adulthood only to be devastated by her death.
Yes, the film's plot does get ginned up a bit. For audience members bottle fed on blockbuster tropes, who might find all the discussions of the meanings of inky circular clouds of the Heptapod written language too tedious, an occasional explosion or (off-camera) armed insurrection is inserted just to keep them awake. And there is even a chase scene that puts our heroine in peril. But lovers of true sf will not need the distraction of such frippery. You will be entranced by the process of scholarly revelation and interspecies connection as well as the haunting power of a mother's mourning.
Clearly, a central character who is more about thinking and feeling than high-action doing takes an actor with a subtle but powerful range. Amy Adams has this in spades. Her Louise is smart, dedicated, and fully capable of unraveling the mysteries of alien "tongues" as well as her own future as a woman and mother. Emotions ranging from joy to grief to the wonder of a scholarly breakthrough play across her expressive face in a way that keeps the audience with her every step of the way.
I fear that the filmmakers might have felt the need to put too much of a Christopher Nolan spin on their story toward the end, however. The non-linear nature of time for the visiting species seems to imbue their language with some strange mojo. By decoding their language, our scholarly heroine appears to have achieved something akin to superpowers in the closing moments of the movie. Acquiring such a "weapon," Louise faces several new moral conundrums that the movie is not willing to sufficiently explore.
And I do wonder: Was there really a need to tack on a message of international peace and cooperation to this storyline? Probably not. But encouraging various political and national forces to foster trust and unity can't be a bad thing—especially in times like these! So I am willing to give the filmmakers a pass on that one. Just as I understand their need to give a plausible (if slightly loopy) reason for the Heptapodian visitation.
Still, it is author Ted Chiang who truly embraced the profound mysteries of his first contact story. In his fiction a woman acknowledges the uncertainty of her future. And as for the Heptapods? Humanity never learns why they came or why they left.
Life is never as tidy as filmmakers want it to be.
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