CinemaTech: In Arrival, tech is the glue that binds societies together

CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.

Early in Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s thoughtful new science fiction film, scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) reads a passage from one of protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams)’ bestsellers: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together, and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict. Without language, we are nothing.”

She doesn’t quite recognize the quote at first, although he reminds her she wrote it.

“It’s good,” he says. “Even if it’s wrong… The cornerstone of civilization isn’t language. It’s science. Man doesn’t need to tell everyone how to make fire. He just has to burn them with it.”

With all due respect to the characters (and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who based it on a short story by technical writer Ted Chiang), I think they’re both wrong: The glue that holds our people together is technology.

To be fair to Ian, he touches on this when he mentions fire – arguably the first technological innovation, and certainly more of a game-changer than, say, the printing press or the Internet.

It’s technology that enables representatives from 12 countries to communicate in real time when a series of football-shaped alien spacecraft begin hovering in random locations across the planet. It’s also technology that is used to create widespread panic among the world’s population while government leaders attempt to figure out what is happening.

Arrival ship
Can you really blame people for freaking out after seeing that?

And when the aliens themselves make few attempts to engage with humans other than inviting small groups into their ships, where each side can stare at the other through an invisible field, it’s technology that helps Louise figure out how to communicate with them.

(Warning: Mild spoilers, most of which can be seen in the trailer, follow.)

The aliens, which the film’s human characters nickname “heptapods,” turn out to be seven-tentacled creatures with no obvious front or back – and consequently, a writing system based on sentences with no beginning or end. Rather than arranging words to form thoughts based on a chosen order, they arrange concepts into a circle that collectively provides the reader with an abstract meaning.

It’s better shown than told, especially since the bulk of the film depicts how Louise (ahem) arrives there:


The heptapods’ written language, which according to writer Heisserer includes 100 unique logograms, was co-developed by designer Patrice Vermette and Christopher Wolfram, the son of scientific consultant Stephen Wolfram, who notes in his blog that unlike most fictional software, the language processing program in Arrival actually performs the analyses depicted onscreen.

Science fiction has a long history of applying something akin to the Madonna/Whore complex to its depiction of technology, presenting society-redefining breakthroughs in ways that are either unambiguously good or (far, far, far more often) nightmarishly bad. It’s also a chilly genre, with classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner notable more for their ideas than any connection the audience might feel to their characters.

Arrival, by contrast, is a very warm movie, but its heartbeat sneaks up on you: It’s as fascinated by the logistical challenges Louise faces as she learns to communicate with the heptapods as it is by the experience’s impact on her psyche. Perhaps intentionally, Villeneuve focuses so much on the story’s technical details that by the time its emotional climax arrives in the third act, it’s as easy to forget the foundation laid at the beginning as it’s been to ignore the threads woven throughout the film.

Plot-wise, Arrival’s closest corollaries would seem to be Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Day The Earth Stood Still, though it’s less ambiguous than the former and delivers its plea for cooperation slightly less forcefully than the latter (say, with a mallet rather than a sledgehammer).

But I think a more apt comparison would be last year’s The Martian: like Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleaser, Arrival simply depicts technology as a ubiquitous component of its world, neither good or bad, merely a tool (alongside, admittedly, science and language) to accomplish an ambitious goal – much like our society’s litany of gadgets in real life.

Louise Banks’ journey would be very different without it.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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