600 years ago, everyone agreed that earth is at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies revolve around us. That was a fact.
If some dreamer had stood up and said, “Hey, maybe the earth is just one of a billion planets in our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of a billion in the universe,” that guy would have been laughed at or burnt at the stake.
Yesterday’s facts are today’s jokes and today’s jokes and tomorrow’s facts. Anyone who asserts that she is completely certain about anything is either a religious person expressing her faith or a fool who has learned nothing from history.
“Arrival” is a cinematic love letter to people who value contemplation over action, and discovery over certainty. It is a relentlessly brave and nerdy film. There’s a good reason why it is the first sci-fi movie this decade to be nominated for Best Picture.
“Arrival” begins with a bang. Twelve gigantic spaceships land at different spots around the earth. Suddenly, there is no longer a question about whether there is intelligent life in the universe. The question is: what do they want?
If they came here to phone home, it is going to take a serious crash course in Alien language to find out. And linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is just the one to do it.
This sets the stage for an hour of language class with Dr. Banks and the aliens. There are no action scenes and there are no laser guns. This is a 20th century science fiction film for grown-ups only.
Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve deserved his nomination for Best Director. “Arrival” is instantly entertaining. And his ideas stay with you for days.
His most obvious point is that written language is the pinnacle of intelligence. Any idiot can yack to you for five minutes about how he doesn’t like his boss. And any cat can tell you that her food bowl is empty. But only using the written word can we ever have a shot at being fully understood by the people around us.
Villeneuve’s more sophisticated point is that each language is a double-edged sword. It is a window that allows you access to the outside world. But it is also a box that keeps you from fully exploring it.
The limits of our language are like what the limits of our eyesight were in 1500. Just as Galileo’s telescope opened up a new understanding of the universe, learning a new language has the power to unlock a completely different perspective of reality.
Anyone who teaches you a new language is expanding your mind. Anyone who scolds you for saying something inappropriate is shackling you to a limited set of beliefs.
The lesson of “Arrival” is the same lesson of 600 years ago: There is no concrete set of facts. There are only new worlds to discover.