Weapon or Tool? What ‘Arrival’ Teaches Us About Language and Communication
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Arrival (2016).
What if, one day, an alien spacecraft were to land on Earth, docking in various locations across the globe without warning? Would people immediately sound the alarm, terrified by the appearance of these extraterrestrial visitors, or would they respond with informed composure? Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi thriller Arrival asks this very question, and it’s one that feels eerily relevant to today’s sociopolitical climate. We live in a world where people are quick to judge what they don’t understand. Anything that disrupts our sense of normality is perceived as a threat to existence as we know it, regardless of whether or not it poses any actual danger.
The aliens in Arrival, later named Heptapods, are a manifestation of this fear of the unknown. As the world descends into paranoia over their presence, the United States military recruits the help of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a level-headed linguist who feels the best way to make contact with the Heptapods is by learning to converse with them. Her methods are questioned by her team, but Louise’s unconventional approach becomes key to learning the Heptapods’ mysterious purpose. By demonstrating the power of communication, Arrival suggests we should react to unfamiliar situations not with violence and fear, but by engaging in meaningful dialogue to understand what’s really going on.
From the moment the alien vessels are sighted, there is instantaneous panic. An area-wide lockdown ensues as sirens blare and military jets are deployed. News reports state that the President has declared a national state of emergency just 48 hours afterward, causing the closure of borders and grounding of flights. Supplies like food, water, and gas are bought in a panic, and conspiracy theories run wild. Essentially, the world goes into an alien quarantine (how timely!) “Two days, and already the public expects us to know the answers,” Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) remarks to Louise upon their first meeting. Not knowing the answers is exactly why people are fearful of this alien crisis, which has become further sensationalised by media coverage.
As Louise joins Colonel Weber and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on their journey to base, situated within throwing distance of an extraterrestrial vessel, the new colleagues discuss how they plan to make contact. To Louise’s dismay, their proposed method involves subjecting the Heptapods to a series of complex interrogations. “How about we just talk to them before we start throwing math problems at them?” Louise suggests. Her own approach to the situation is rooted in logic but also comes from a very human perspective, envisioning the Heptapods merely as another race whose language she has yet to learn. She isn’t afraid of them— she just wants to understand them.
During one of her first attempts to make contact with the Heptapods, Louise holds up a whiteboard with the word “HUMAN” written on it in capital letters. “I’m human. What are you?”, she asks from behind the safety of her bright orange hazmat suit. The Heptapods are responsive to the question, as their shrouded squid-like forms create inky black symbols that dissipate into the air. Louise and her team don’t know what these symbols mean, but this first “conversation” is undoubtedly a success. Louise then repeats the same tactic later on, this time introducing herself by name. Disregarding safety protocol, Louise unzips her hazmat suit and walks towards the viewing area. “They need to see me,” she explains. It’s a moment of extreme vulnerability, one that comes with a great deal of risk attached to it. However, her defiant act pays off as the Heptapods once again reach out, creating new, circular symbols that she presumes to be their names. When she asks Ian what to call them, he suggests “Abbott” and “Costello,” a nod to the famous comedic duo.
Naming the Heptapods may seem like a small, insignificant gesture, but it’s an example of how important language can be. While using language of the “other” (“invader,” “alien,” “monster,” etc.) to talk about something unfamiliar dehumanises it, so, therefore, associating it with a friendly and familiar name does the exact opposite. Louise applies her knowledge of semiotics as she continues to communicate with Abbott and Costello, breaking down complex sentences into their fundamental building blocks. Her questions are short and to the point, which is what makes them effective. Ian notes that she approaches language “like a mathematician,” because of her precise and methodical treatment of it, but just as Louise makes sense of the world through language, Ian does the same with science. As the two work together, they encourage one another to consider new concepts and openly share the information they discover about the Heptapods. However, not everyone follows the same approach as Louise and her team.
Upon learning that China failed in their attempts at communicating with the Heptapods via mahjong tile sets, Louise explains why using the language of competition to understand their intent is problematic. “Every conversation would be a game,” she states. “Every idea expressed through opposition, victory, defeat.” That’s why when the Heptapods later appear to send the message “offer weapon,” Louise doesn’t react with fear. “We don’t know if they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool,” she rationalises, suggesting the language barrier between Heptapods and humans could account for this interpretation. “Our language, like our culture, is messy, and sometimes, one can be both.” However, the Heptapods’ usage of the word “weapon” is enough to cause countries around the world to respond with conflict, with China declaring war on the aliens and urging the rest of the world to follow suit.
While off the grid, Louise and Ian’s persistent communication with the Heptapods leads to their most significant breakthrough yet. They discover they’ve been given a single section of a global message, and each of the other countries involved have received their own pieces of the puzzle as well. “What better way to force us to work together for once?” Louise asks after realising this. She comes to learn that the “weapon” the Heptapods offer the world is their own language— a new way of universal communication not bound by linear temporality. By using the gift of foresight that the Heptapod gives her, Louise uses this newfound, extraterrestrial ability to convince China’s general to stand down. One by one, other countries cease their militant approach and resume talks with one another as they begin to assemble the message, and the Heptapods peacefully depart the planet.
Through Louise’s sympathetic approach to making contact with the Heptapods, Arrival shows it is crucial to try and understand the bigger picture when dealing with the unknown. Instead of approaching things from an “us vs. them” mentality and assuming the worst, the film implores us to consider new perspectives that we may not have thought of otherwise. Whether dealing with a pandemic, racial injustice, or an alien invasion, coming together to communicate and listen to one another is ultimately the most effective response in a global crisis. If the world was more willing to embrace this mentality, perhaps we would learn that sometimes the things we first consider weapons can turn out to be valuable tools, intended to help rather than cause harm.