There are a lot of things to enjoy about this time of year. There are chilly mornings spent wrapped in blankets and sipping coffee, frosted windows, time spent indoors with friends and family and the opportunity to try new foods or other ways to stay entertained.
This time of year also brings with it new movies at the box office. This is one of the things I enjoy most about the holidays, and I might have been really looking forward to this movie season, because overall 2016 has been a pretty mediocre year for films. I’m sure the really great ones I didn’t get the opportunity to go see, but when I tried to recall the movies that I enjoyed the most, I think “Tarzan” and “Zootopia” topped my list. While this is great for Disney, who has had a successful year for movies, it’s disappointing that nothing else immediately came to mind when I reflected on this year’s films.
Fortunately, the year’s not over yet, and it’s a good thing it isn’t. For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, “Arrival” may well be the movie that I’ve been waiting for this year, and the best movie of 2016.
The movie, aptly named, begins with an arrival of beings from another planet, and follows how our planet responds when it does.
“Arrival” is tight with tension and suspense during the course of the film, and what struck me was rather than display a show of force to the visitors, governments around the world tried to figure out a way to talk to them. But how do you communicate with a being who doesn’t have the same language or even familiar concepts as you do? Does an alien know what “walking” means? Does an alien even know what it means to speak?
Amy Adams plays a linguist who is sent to help find the answers to these questions. She does so by teaching Earth’s visitors our words by writing them down, and in turn learning the aliens’ written language. It’s a clever idea that took me back to my school days learning Spanish. The first day of class we opened our textbooks and started looking at words and the Spanish alphabet, and how to say these letters in Spanish. It stuck, and it laid the foundation for helping me learn the rest of the language and to pass the class. To this day I am much better at writing in Spanish than I am at speaking it.
Adams’ character is under much more pressure in her classes, however, but her dedication to her plan is apparent, and it resonated with me. I realized I was watching a movie that advocated for communication and a call to talk to each other, but to do so in a way that nothing gets misconstrued. Accuracy in communication is key.
One scene has Adams’ character under fire for not moving fast enough in her English lessons. The world wants answers, particularly to the big question: “Why are you here?”
Adams’ character responds to this situation by writing this phrase on a board, and then word by word she breaks down how important it is for each word in the question to be understood correctly. Do the aliens know what a question is? Do they understand the way “you” is used in the general sense? Do they understand what is meant by the idea of a purpose?
As a reporter I’ve seen just how important it is to get on the same page as the people I’m asking questions of. Questions that are seemingly obvious to me have confused the individuals I’m interviewing, and I’ve had to scramble on the spot as I furiously think of a way to rephrase what I’m trying to say.
I’ve encountered these situations with the advantages of knowing what species I am talking to, as well as sharing the same language. I can’t imagine being in a situation the movie puts our linguist in as she realizes if something she says, or even translates, is misinterpreted the consequences could spell disaster.
This movie got me to thinking about languages and the role they play in how societies are shaped. Consider the phenomenon that all of humanity feels a certain way at some point in time, but some people are unable to say exactly what they’re feeling because there’s yet to be a word for that in their language. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, there’s a word in another language that describes that universal feeling, and it has yet to be adopted by the rest of us.
The words we use help us make sense of what we see take place around us. Without the proper words, the world we try to explain to others becomes different. Our words can get lumped into something that’s close-but-not-quite. And while being close might be good enough in many cases, sometimes an exact translation is required. It’s these little differences in our linguistics that shape our reality.
“Arrival” serves as a metaphor for not only communication, but a desire to understand other frames of mind. It’s the idea of seeing something the way somebody else with entirely different experiences and viewpoints might, and what can be learned from them. And it’s an idea that spoke to me.
Miranda Wilcox is the managing editor of the Anna-Melissa Tribune, the Prosper Press and the Van Alstyne Leader. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.