‘Arrival’ and the integration of complex theoretical ideas in successful Hollywood films

If you haven’t yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s latest outing, Arrival, I recommend you go see it now (or read on at your peril). If you’ve seen the movie, or read any of the reviews online, you will probably be aware of its almost universal acclaim. Slower than many blockbusters, it nonetheless manages to retain interest and tease the surprising developments satisfyingly throughout.

What the movie does best is beautifully explain and present the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic relativity. Knowing nothing of this hypothesis beforehand, I left the cinema feeling as though I had a grasp on what it meant (I probably don’t, but hey!).

In case you haven’t seen the film and you’re the only person in the world that doesn’t mind spoilers: the movie opens with Amy Adam’s character, Louise, and her daughter doing mother-daughter things, leading in to scene where her daughter dies in a hospital bed, breaking your heart in an opening sequence, à la Up. As the movie then moves in to the main story of the ships arriving we see Louise, looking sad and without a wedding ring, getting called in to translate the aliens’ language with her mad linguist skills.

So in the end it turns out the lovely aliens (looking like the giant creature from Enemy) have come to give you humanity a gift, isn’t that nice of them. The gift is their language. This is when the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes into it: language determines cognition. Louise becomes immersed in the Heptapod language, which then effects how her brain works giving her the gift of experiencing time in the same way as the Heptapods. Then we find out that she hasn’t been remembering her lost child, but seeing her future child.

This is all pretty incredible and emotional. It reminded me of Nolan’s Interstellar in many ways, not least because of the shared themes of love, family, and time used to devastating effect. But also the way the narrative of Arrival conveys the meaning on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a similar way to Interstellar‘s dramatisation of the theory of relativity (another thing I barely understand).

It’s refreshing to realise that Hollywood is not afraid to put huge budgets into intelligent movies. Whilst we are still getting a constant stream of comic book and franchise hits, it’s comforting to know that people are making big budget movies combining  such complex ideas with such compelling narratives.


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