You’d think if we ever did encounter intelligent aliens there would be a huge problem with communication. Science fiction, including supposedly “true” stories of alien abductions and the like, almost always glosses over this with some (implausible or barely plausible) device—e.g., communication is by telepathy, the aliens have some magic box that immediately translates any unfamiliar language they encounter, or the aliens have been secretly observing us long enough to learn our language—so it won’t have to deal with the problem.

Some things you could certainly infer from behavior. If the aliens land, and proceed to chase people down and eat them, you don’t have to be able to understand their language in order to have a pretty good idea what they’re about.

But if you really did want, and need, to understand what they’re saying and have them understand what you’re saying, what could you do?

There are analogues to this problem in human history, but only quite loose. You could say, for instance, that Columbus and his minions running into a bunch of Indians generates a similar communication problem, but presumably the communication incompatibilities with intelligent aliens would be more complicated by multiple orders of magnitude.

All human beings are biologically extremely similar, and while human languages superficially seem to differ a great deal, there are certain commonalities based on the brain. Though my knowledge of it is extremely limited, I think that’s the area where Noam Chomsky has done much important work—the kind of deep grammar that underlies all human languages.

So, yeah, Italians and Australian Aborigines won’t be able to understand each other initially, but if they make the effort they can at least get on roughly the same page reasonably quickly. In more respects than not they’re already communicating in the same way; it’s just a matter of working out the details. Not to mention, in a Kantian sense they start with the same generic worldviews, roughly the same ways of categorizing reality mentally.

Cross-species communication would be more analogous to humans and aliens, but even that isn’t all that close an analogy. For one thing, as much as we might seem to differ from the other living creatures we share this planet with, we all evolved from a common ancestor, and really we are pretty similar biologically, neurologically—or at least far more so than we would be to some alien species.

For another thing, from what I understand there’s some controversy over whether any non-human species use language at all. Certainly they communicate in some loose sense, but do any of them do so in the linguistic manner that requires grasping concepts and abstractions and such like humans do?

That is, certainly information is conveyed when an animal squeals in pain when struck, or instinctively makes some whistling sound when it sees a lion. But not in the same way that uttering declarative sentences such as “I am in pain!” or “There’s a lion over there!” do. I know there have long been experiments to teach certain apes sign language and such, and that they have achieved some degree of success, but I have also read that there is disagreement in the field over whether what the apes in question are doing is just a more complex version of how information is conveyed via the exclamations of squealing when struck or whistling when responding to the presence of a lion, versus its being genuine humanlike language use.

(Then just to make things more complicated, I believe there are postmodernist types who would collapse the distinction in the other direction, claiming that all human language use is also only sophisticated versions of such exclamations. In other words, like animals we make certain sounds (make certain marks, make certain gestures) in response to stimuli we receive and because doing so tends to generate certain consequences, but these sounds (and marks and gestures) have no “meaning” in the commonsense way that ordinary folks think of language having meaning.)

But anyway, we presumably have never encountered a language barrier as remotely impenetrable as what would exist between us and aliens.

To its credit, not only does Arrival not dodge this issue like science fiction usually does, it makes it its central focus.

Twelve alien spaceships land on Earth, scattered around the globe. (The one in Montana is where most of the story takes place.) The ships just sit there; no beings emerge from them. Contact of a sort is made, but needless to say we can’t understand them and they can’t understand us. Eventually it’s somehow communicated, though, that people will be allowed to come aboard the Montana ship (with similar things apparently happening at the other landing sites).

Meanwhile, Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, is recruited by government officials to assist in trying to communicate with the aliens.

For much of the movie, I felt like trying to personalize it by making it Banks’s story was not the best decision. I mean, it’s OK; seeing how all this plays out in her life and what effects it has on her is somewhat interesting. But at times the personal stuff just slows things down, especially the farther it seems to go off on tangents, like all the material about her daughter who gets cancer or some rare incurable disease. I wanted to know more about the aliens than about her.

As it gets deeper into the movie, some of that gets confusing too. It isn’t always clear if what you’re seeing from Banks’s life are flashbacks, dreams, imagination, or what. And again, I only cared a little bit, because I wanted to get back to the alien stuff.

It turns out, though, that the personal stuff about Banks actually matters to the story. So it’s not just some extraneous human interest material. Once I realized that, of course I focused more on it and the philosophical issues it raises, rather than seeing it as a distraction.

As I say, communicating with aliens would be challenging, to put it mildly. Do they communicate through sound? Do they make marks like writing? Do they communicate with complex mechanical devices? Do they use beams of light? Do they wave things around like signal flags? Do they communicate in some other way not even remotely like how we would?

If they “speak” in some sense, do they use their mouths? Do they have mouths? Do they make communicative sounds with some other part of their body?

Do they have anything that corresponds at all to our letters, syllables, words, sentences, etc.? How about intonation, like the way our voice changes at the end of a question? Are some of these things that any communicative species would have to use, or are they all human practices that would make no sense relative to the way some extraterrestrial species would communicate?

Banks is initially played some sounds that purportedly were made by the aliens, and asked if there is any way she can translate it. The problem with that, she explains, is that typically a great deal is communicated nonverbally when someone speaks, like through body language, facial expression, where their attention is directed, etc. A voice—assuming this even is a “voice”—with no context is hard enough to make sense of if it’s an unfamiliar human language, but given that this is even farther removed from any language and any translating she has worked on in the past, she tells them she would need to interact more directly with the aliens, which is eventually agreed to.

Not that that would solve the problem of course, since things like body language and facial expression for the aliens aren’t likely to match up very well with human nonverbal communication—whatever “bodies” or “faces” they have may well not even remotely resemble those of humans—but at least it’s a little more evidence to work with.

When we see her go aboard the alien vessel with a small party, it’s one of the most interesting and inventive scenes.

The people drive to a spot directly under the ship in a military vehicle of some sort. They stand on a platform on top of the vehicle, which can be raised or lowered. (I was really struggling to describe what raises and lowers the platform, but through Google—the second greatest thing ever invented—I found a photo that looks just like it. Evidently it’s a “hydraulic scissor lift platform.”) The spaceship opens on the bottom, and they rise up into the belly of the ship.

They are in a kind of long, vertical tube or corridor. What is especially cool about it is that at a certain point in this tube, gravity changes. That is, up to a point, gravity is pulling them toward Earth, toward the floor of the platform, like it should. But past that point, it pulls sideways. It doesn’t go away, like astronauts floating weightless in space, but pulls them in the direction of one of the side walls. That side wall becomes the ground in effect.

To transfer to the new gravity area, they have to kind of jump up off the platform past the line where gravity changes, and then instead of falling back to the platform like every instinct they have tells them they will, they “fall” into the wall.

They walk up a little farther from there and come to a clear barrier. On the other side are the aliens. (So relative to the ground, both they and the aliens are sideways. Evidently in their world the aliens are used to walking up walls like a fly, so their spaceship has been designed with some kind of corresponding gravity.) It’s hard to see them well initially because the other side of the barrier where they are is all misty; apparently it’s a different atmosphere. Eventually you do get a better look at them, though never in great detail. (I won’t give away the specifics.)

From there it’s a process of painstakingly trying to figure out each other’s language, over the course of a series of such meetings in the ship. A lot of that is just a matter of pointing to something and making the corresponding sound or writing the corresponding word on a little blackboard and hoping the aliens make the connection. Meanwhile they take video and audio of everything that even might be intended communicatively from the aliens, and later they analyze it all with computers.

Slow but steady progress is made, and eventually each side seems able to at least roughly translate what the other is saying. Actually, if anything I would guess in reality it would be even harder than what is depicted here. I mean, maybe you can do a decent job with things you can point to, but how do you convey “uncertainty,” “depression,” “priority,” “as,” “the,” “if,” etc.

Then again, even the things you can point to seem highly ambiguous. If you point to a person, is the word you’re saying while you do so to be understood as “person,” “man,” “adult,” “soldier,” “standing,” “American,” “uniform,” “born in Ohio,” “not a threat to you,” “tall,” or what?

It’s not an insurmountable problem, otherwise no humans would have ever been able to come to understand each other’s languages, but it strikes me as being quite a difficult one, compounded here by the fact that, one, as mentioned these are aliens who likely have little or no neurological/cultural/anatomical/whatever overlap with English-speakers the way any other humans would, and, two, there’s so little context to learn from here with beings standing around communicating through glass—it’s not like you’re picking up German by living in Berlin and observing not only what people say but all the activities and interactions and such surrounding what they say.

Arrival is a much more thoughtful than action-packed science fiction tale. Among these language and communication issues it delves into is the way language can shape how we perceive and how we think.

Language isn’t some totally neutral tool handed down from on high. There’s a sense in which people who use different languages genuinely think differently. As one of the characters in the movie notes, when you become accustomed to a new language, to where you’re using it and understanding it directly rather than having to go through that extra step of translating in your mind to and from your native language, your brain itself is reshaped.

The example often used is that Eskimos have some huge number of words for “snow.” (I’ve since read that there’s an element of myth to that one specifically, but never mind.) If you are raised speaking an Eskimo language, you’ll probably be a lot more perceptive about very subtle differences in snow than someone raised with a different language. It’s not that if you’re used to only non-Eskimo languages you’ll still perceive the differences but just not have separate words for the different types of snow (“Well, this snow is slightly wetter than that snow, which in turn is slightly wetter than that snow, but they’re all ‘snow’”), but that you won’t be able to perceive many of the differences the Eskimo-language speaker can.

As Banks and her team get farther along in their work, she realizes that she isn’t just understanding the alien language in the sense of being able to mechanically find the corresponding English words for what they’re saying, but is coming to think like the aliens.

If we’re talking about the difference between Chinese-speakers and Swahili-speakers, yes there will be some difference in how they conceive reality as reflected in language, but as they are all human the differences will be so slight that you’d probably be little if at all conscious of a change if you switched languages and the corresponding changes in your brain occurred. But an alien mentality is so, well, alien, that when acquiring their language takes her even part of the way toward thinking like them, it turns her world upside down.

One of the most radically different ways the aliens—and their language—conceptualize the world regards time. Apparently they don’t think of it or describe it in a way that entails there is something essentially inaccessible about the past or the future. It’s more like space—you can observe different parts of physical space simultaneously, you can freely move from one point in physical space to another, etc. They see themselves as no more “stuck” in the present temporally than one can be “stuck” in Cleveland spatially.

It’s all intriguing stuff, and it’s quite well done. However, in the end I do have serious doubts about its plausibility. It’s not implausible in the simple and obvious ways science fiction typically is—to its credit, whatever flaws of this kind Arrival has occur at a much more subtle, sophisticated level—but I’m not convinced it all adds up.

I certainly may be wrong about this, but the way I’d put it is that I think language differences are relevant to convention rather than to reality (or to social reality rather than to regular reality), whereas Arrival seems to want you to believe that language can change reality itself.

Consider the example of sexist language. If you are raised in a language community where words like “weatherman,” “mailman,” “craftsman,” “fisherman,” etc. are used, you’ll probably—all else being equal—have different beliefs, values, and expectations about gender roles than if you are raised in a language community where “meteorologist,” “mail carrier,” “craftsperson,” “fisherperson,” etc. are used. That is, women occupying these occupations will seem somehow more peculiar, more inappropriate, more unlikely, more objectionable. Even if technically the suffix “man” doesn’t preclude anyone of any gender fulfilling these roles, it still, at some subconscious level, can seem like it does. And that will have obvious effects on behavior, for example the likelihood of a girl deciding that she wants to follow a path to be a “weatherman” when she grows up.

Change the language and—again, all else being equal—you probably have a slightly less sexist society.

Now consider if as an experiment we carefully ensure that a certain group of children is raised such that they never learn the concept of “death.” Would that make them immortal? Of course not. They might not know how to describe it when they start dying, and they might be quite surprised, but they’re still going to die.

Or like with the Eskimos and their snow. As non-Eskimos we might not perceive a difference between the snow that fell last week and the snow that fell this week, but whatever difference there is still exists. It’s not like if we’re walking down the street with an Eskimo getting snowed on it’s different snow falling on us and falling on him; it’s just that our perceptions and descriptions of the snow differ from his.

Maybe time is different, I don’t know. I mean, I guess scientifically it’s just another dimension, and in some sense it’s convertible or analogous to a spatial dimension. But that doesn’t mean that the people like Einstein and modern scientists who recognize and understand that in a way I decidedly don’t, and who have developed scientific and mathematical languages to express their knowledge, are able to time travel or possess some power of clairvoyance.

I don’t buy that time to these aliens (and to Banks and anyone who learns their language and learns to think like them) is like space to us. Think about the paradoxes of time travel (going back in the past and changing it may keep you from coming into existence, but a non-existent you couldn’t have been fiddling with the past to begin with), or the implications for free will. I don’t think these can be solved or wished away simply by changing the language (any more than the children who aren’t taught the word for “death” would therefore never die).

On the whole, Arrival is one of the better science fiction movies I’ve seen. There’s an impressive realism to it. Although it’s impossible to predict just what it would be like if some intelligent aliens did indeed visit Earth—how we would react, how the interaction would go, etc.—I can picture it being 80%-90% like it’s depicted in Arrival, whereas with most science fiction movies I feel like we’re being asked to accept a lot more dubious elements just so it’ll have more action or make for a more conventionally entertaining story or whatever. The language barrier itself being the main example of how this movie takes seriously something that very likely would be a problem with an actual alien encounter, whereas most science fiction wishes it away.

As mentioned, the personal material that I found largely extraneous early on and reacted to in a neutral to mildly negative way turns out to not be extraneous after all. Elements of the movie can be confusing for a time, but ultimately it’s reasonably good about explaining things and tying up the loose ends, rather than leaving you hanging in some artsy, frustrating way. And it’s a philosophically thought-provoking film, where any plausibility doubts that crept up for me occurred at a deep enough level that I’m not going to dock it too many points. Maybe in the end it doesn’t all hang together, but it comes a lot closer than most science fiction and it gives you plenty to think about in the process.

Thumbs up for Arrival.