Arrival, the newest sci-fi alien encounter film to hit the silver screen, promotes an unlikely and yet truly plausible hero. When 12 alien ships unexpectedly arrive on Earth, Dr. Louise Banks, an American translator and expert linguist, is called upon by the U.S. military to help answer the film—and humanity’s—most urgent question: Why are they here? Dr. Banks (played by Amy Adams) becomes the film’s hero when she cracks the code of the aliens’ written language and deduces that their circular smoke-like symbols, which look a lot like inkblots, actually contain complex thoughts and ideas portrayed in non-linear sentence structures.
With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks realizes that the non-linear aspect of the language is actually a direct reflection of how the foreign species thinks – just as their written language is structured in a way where the concept of time is irrelevant, their thought process is also unhindered by time’s limitations. The twist is that the more Dr. Banks begins to understand the language, the more she begins to think like its speakers. By the end of Arrival, moviegoers realize that the clips of Dr. Banks’ daughter portrayed as flashbacks throughout the film are not memories at all. Rather, they are her visions of her own future which she is now able to see thanks to her reoriented sense of time.
This transcendence of time plays to the movie’s sci-fi genre, but the truth is that Dr. Banks’ experience is anything but alien. In fact, it fits precisely with the age-old idea that language and thought are uniquely intertwined. This concept dates all the way back to Plato and was examined more recently in the theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This somewhat controversial theory states that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition and world view – which is precisely what happens to Dr. Banks as she begins to understand the circular nature of the alien symbols.
However, while her comprehension of the mysterious language grows, so does Dr. Banks’ concern over the true context of specific words. This concern goes global when Dr. Banks finally asks the all-important question of why the aliens have come to Earth and translates their answer into English as “offer weapon.” This translation prompts global chaos as humanity fears it is on the brink of extinction and world leaders debate how to deal with the existential threat. But Dr. Banks, in a race against time, insists that “we need to make sure that they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy and sometimes one can be both.” This intergalactic example of language localization is the key to Dr. Banks’ ultimate triumph. She uses her skills as a linguist to interpret the real meaning of “weapon” and determines that what the aliens actually mean is “offer gift.”
In the end, we learn that the aliens came to Earth peacefully with the intention of offering humanity a gift – the gift of their language – because they know that in 3000 years they will be in need of human assistance. The gift serves both races as humans receive a new language whose byproduct is the ability to transcend time and see the future, while the aliens establish a relationship and way to communicate with their future saviors. Ultimately, a linguist and a language save the day, and humanity gets a lesson in the importance of accurate translations in bridging cultural differences.