This contains no spoilers. Do yourself a favor, do not read reviews with spoilers. This movie is worth watching unadulterated.
There is a certain beauty in sadness. Not in the enduring or the surviving of sadness, but in the choosing of it. In the caregivers who choose to enter palliative care for children, who choose to befriend these wonderful children despite knowing the sadness they must endure at the friendship’s inevitable end. In the May-December romances where one partner chooses to love despite knowing that they will most certainly outlive that love. The beauty in choosing to serve the homeless, the poor, refugees, or any suffering group for which there will always be more, an unstoppable flow that will never be staunched.
This beauty is embodied in Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who at the film’s start we witness suffer a tremendous loss. We follow her moving throughout her day, unsmiling, and barely noticing the crowds clustered about televisions tuned to news coverage have likely been populated by the students in her now empty classes. When she is prompted to check in, she follows with interest like the rest of us and is recruited by the military to translate the alien speech. It is an interesting endeavor, particularly since we have yet to successfully communicate with whales, who have complex language and as different an anatomy to us as the film’s aliens.
However, in the film, the aliens have technology and are also attempting to communicate with us. Here we learn about the alien language while learning more about our own. We learn how subtle characteristics of language can affect one’s world view. Certain languages have masculine and feminine forms and native speakers of these tend to view certain nouns as male or female. For instance, to an English speaker the word “university” is gender-neutral, while to a Spanish speaker it is feminine. Speakers of the Australian aboriginal language do not use words such as left foot or right hand, but will indicate their east foot and south hand, depending on the direction they are facing. Thus, they always know what direction they are facing. Such distinctions affect how one views the world around them. Such distinctions define how we interact with our environment.
Exposure to certain types of speech can affect our levels of anxiety; people who regularly watch ratings-based news channels with “if it bleeds it leads” philosophies are substantially more prone to develop stress, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorders. The film explores these myriad effects of speech and language on people and cultures, while teaching us about the visiting aliens as we learn their language. As different groups from around the world make headway with their translations, the culture and language of the linguists inform their translations. Since our world is one in which we so easily misunderstand each other, the inevitable outcome is that we transfer these misunderstandings to the aliens.
The film deftly acquaints us with these aliens, with Dr. Banks as our guide, negotiator, and translator. Woven throughout the film are moments of awe, nail-biting tension, and beauty. We experience the revelations with Dr. Banks, we see the beauty in her choices and we do not know that we would do the same. The special effects are superb — it is an accomplishment to successfully impart a sense of immense weight to something that is floating. It is very rare that a film is better than the story it was adapted from (Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life), but somehow this story that was just essentially a long linguistics lesson, is the best science fiction film I have seen in a while.
It was a pretty wise choice to limit the understanding to our perspective and not attempt to explain the science. That way, there was nothing that they could get woefully wrong.
Aliens: the aliens are essentially octopus amputees. With 7 limbs and a bulbous upper part, I could only see an octopus missing a leg. Then I was reminded of Europa where the aliens also look like octopuses. Not that aliens wouldn’t look like octopuses, but what is this fascination with octopuses? It would be interesting to see aliens that actually looked like nothing we had ever seen before.
Alien ships: there are scenes where the gravity is manipulated by the aliens. It is disorienting and was depicted as diminishing before gradually changing directions. Since gravity is experienced as acceleration, and acceleration is the second derivative of position with respect to time, the change in gravity over time would be a cubic expression, hence continuous rather than discontinuous. In other words, the gravity change should be smooth — its depiction was accurate.
Linguistics: Yes. So much yes. The approach that one would make when learning a language with no known corollary would have to be very basic. The commonalities needed and approach taken by Dr. Banks was appropriate. But also, more and more studies speak to the effect that language has on our minds. Aboriginal Australians are essentially human GPSs because their language requires them to be. In certain languages there aren’t additional words for the numbers 11-20, but direct translations of them would be ten-one, ten-two... two-tens. Child speakers of these languages tend to be accelerated over English speakers with arithmetic because they don’t have to figure out that ten plus two equals twelve, their language tells them.