“Language is the first weapon drawn in any conflict.” — Louise Banks
Nowhere in Human relationship is the idea of language more pressing than when two people meet for the first time. Lacking a mutual language for understanding each other can make interactions tense, awkward or even frightening when a misunderstanding occurs.
Now imagine how that looks when the person you are communicating with isn’t Human. You have no mutual frames of reference, no agreed upon codes of behavior, little to base your communication upon, no root languages (except maybe mathematics), and worst of all, if it happened today, nothing resembling a Universal Translator.
What would you do?
In an upcoming movie, Arrival, we have this exact circumstance with the world growing ever more frightened as the attempt to understand the aliens grinds to a halt. Here’s the official synopsis for Arrival:
“When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team — lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) — are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers — and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.”
The trailer is tense and vivid, world-spanning in its scope. Let’s hope the movie is as good as this trailer promises. I included both of the trailers available at the moment.
The Answer-Man Muses:
Why do I mention the movie at all? I mean who does a trailer review, anyway?
In a genre known for shooting first and asking questions later, this alien invasion movie presents the idea the aliens are at least interested in talking to us BEFORE they attempt to take over our planet. That particularly novelty is my primary reason for even addressing it at all.
To make it more interesting, the aliens have not been confirmed to be taking over the planet, only suspected of it. But good old suspicious Humans, we are going to go ahead and assume the worst — or at least some of us will. We will accuse the aliens of any number of sins: colonialism, imperialism, expansionism and ultimately extermination of a native species…us. Given our nature, we might be more generous with how aliens think if we didn’t have a history so filled with such atrocities.
Despite the fact the woman appears far too young to be the person most likely chosen by any agency to meet with alien invaders and decipher their language, I would still have thought this would have been the perfect movie to present Forest Whitaker as an eccentric language/mathematical genius who with a team of scientists attempts to resolve this issue. But then I woke up and remembered this is Hollywood. Such a role is not one people of color can be easily imagined in by the industry.
It’s about the numbers. The greatest appeal to a White audience is going to be a White man. But since the industry is taking some heat from making their default protagonist a white man, they put a White woman in the role, demographically safer and more likely to get funding from the backers.
Alien invasion isn’t new…
Hollywood has not arrived. Not even close. But the premise of this movie is at least a minor departure from the standard tropes presented in alien invasion stories such as:
- Military slug-fests where Humans and Aliens wage war across the planet either with cool alien technologies or brutal weapons in close combat. Occasionally we create cool, but highly implausible technology to fight back. Almost without fail the aliens are arrogant and underestimate plucky little humanity and we win! (Independence Day, Independence Day: Resurgence, Battle: Los Angeles, Pacific Rim, Edge of Tomorrow)
- Aliens appearing over the Earth in completely untouchable technology forcing humanity to accept a role as penitents, supplicants or food supplies. A humbug or weird turn of events saves us and we are allowed to return to our lives, scarred with the knowledge we almost didn’t make it. (War of the Worlds, Battleship, Life Force)
- Aliens seek to visit or destroy humanity and we never even learn the reason why. They came, they saw, they conquered. These enemies are usually terrifying, unknowable, and traumatize us when we discover just how insignificant we are. In some cases, thank god for Country music. (The Thing, Skyline, Mars Attacks, Numbers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Knowing)
- Aliens conquer the world and don’t even tell us except when they need work to be done. These bastards come to Earth, invisibly invade, take up residence and put us to work tending keevas and trillium while they teleport among the stars with us none the wiser; unless we wear the right sunglasses or dress suit. (They Live, Men in Black)
- Some aliens invade the world to repopulate their species, some just come here to Eat at Earth. I loved these stories as a kid not realizing how terrible they truly were. Eating hamburgers: Great! Being hamburgers, Not so great… They are the worst kind of aliens, they can’t be reasoned with because they don’t want anything from us but to add us to their exotic foods menu. (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Scanners, The Faculty, Little Shop of Horrors, The Blob, Day of the Triffids)
Arrival will have the problem being Humans who fear loss of their dominion over the Earth, showing out, killing each other trying to hide our secrets and protect our resources from the threat of invasion. But if they come from another world could we really resist them if they really wanted to take our planet?
- Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
- Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
- Release Date: November 11, 2016
- Genre: Science Fiction; © 2016 — Paramount Pictures
The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.