How humanity would communicate with alien species has been a widely explored topic in science-fiction films for as long as they have existed. From the flashing lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to the use of Sesame Street to teach a visitor to speak in E.T., sci-fi films have tackled a number of routes when it comes to humans attempting to chat with aliens. In the new film Arrival, communication isn't just one aspect of the story's alien encounter, but the very focus of a heady, intelligent script that presents language in an entirely new way than it's ever been seen before. That the film presents its thoughts on communication and language via its sole female character, Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, shines an interesting light on how we, as a culture, view women as being more capable of successful communication than men.
Based on the short story Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, Arrival begins with 12 mysterious, enormous alien pods appearing at various points around Earth. Adams' character, an expert linguist, is tasked with trying to find a way to communicate with the enormous, tentacled, alien creatures inside the pods, who "speak" to their human counterparts from a cloudy environment behind a glass wall. That plotline makes for a riveting film, one whose highly intellectual sci-fi feels in the vein of Contact. But it's the film's unique focus on how we communicate here on Earth, even with people in other countries, that makes it stand out from the pack. The "normal" way of communication that the people of Arrival use is soon proven obsolete thanks to the aliens, and a new method of language has to be learned in order to prevent catastrophe.
And the fact that it's Arrival's sole woman who is the one advocating for intense, lengthy, complicated communication with the aliens makes the movie all the more interesting. The men around Louise, be they the stern military leader played by Forrest Whitaker or the CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg, believe in action over language. They want to know what move to make and what to do, not what to talk about. Jeremy Renner's man of science, meanwhile, isn't terribly concerned with action like the rest of the men, but as a physicist, he's more interested in observing and studying, rather than communicating. Louise is the standout, as although her linguistic abilities aren't imbued with any kind of alien enhancements or powers, she is incredibly gifted at learning and understanding languages, and thus the only person able (spoiler!) to decode the aliens' written speech in the long run.
The dynamic between Louise and the men reflects the long-held idea that women, as a whole, are better communicators than men. A 2013 study from the University of Maryland's School of Medicine showed that female brains possess more of the language protein that makes communication possible, and that women use more words than men. "Girls tend to speak earlier and with greater complexity than boys of the same age," said the study. Men, meanwhile, tend to prefer action over words, and are more prone to impulsiveness. As Psychology Today details, a 2011 Durham University study concluded that "men are more physically and verbally aggressive than women across data sources and nations." Of course, these are generalizations, and not all men or women fall into these categories. Yet there is a scientific basis — just look at our old hunter gatherer roots, where women were more conversational among one another, while men had to be silent and take action while hunting — behind these general differences.
So what does that mean for Arrival? Well in terms of alien invasion, crisis, and war, the film makes the subtle point that it might be a smart idea to look for women to lead the way, particularly when it comes to communication. That one of Arrival's major conflicts — the lack of global unity on how best to deal with the aliens — is the result of men not being willing to stop, listen, and just let Louise figure out what the heck the aliens are saying, is a pretty telling message. Arrival is a great sci-fi film about aliens and outer space, but its thrills are secondary to its message, which says that slowing down to make sure we understand each other can be more important than taking quick action. And in tense political times like these, when the nation is still reeling from our first female presidential candidate losing the race, perhaps we need to remember that in times of crisis, Arrival's message rings truer than ever.
Images: Paramount, Giphy