Category Archives: Arrival Movie

The Movie ‘Arrival’: Science in Deep Play

Stray thoughts on the movie Arrival

Arrival is one of the finest movies of the year, firmly rooted in real people, real lives, and real science. The movie tells the story of first contact with an alien civilisation after spaceships land at twelve points across the globe.

The movie is based on ‘A story of your life’ a short novella by Ted Chaing. The story won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella and the 1999 Sturgeon award.

Arrival expands on the novella in significant ways, including some stunning visualisations of semograms (alien language artifacts that are the central mystery of the plot), and visceral scenes aboard an alien space craft.

Definitions vary (hah!), but for me this is a rare, true science fiction film, dealing in reality and wonder rather than commercial mythologies or transplanted epic. The science is real, and is not broken for purposes of plot or visual kinetics.

Action scenes are few, and those expecting Star Trek may be disappointed or even bored. That said, its a beautiful, beautiful trip.

The movie knows its lineage: there are knowing visual nods to both 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact. More, probably – I’ll tell you after my second viewing.

Goof or Marketing?

There are a few minor discontinuities: in one chart the Australian landing seems to be in the Indian Ocean off Geralton: in a later scene there is a brief shot of an alien spacecraft with central Sydney in the distance across water. North or south I couldn’t determine (I’ll check next time) but would it be kind of ironic if aliens made first contact with humans at Chronulla, scene of violent xenophobic riots in 2005.

The Science of Arrival


Central to the plot of Arrival are a number of perennial issues in linguistics, anthropology, and physics. Without giving away specific spoilers, a simplified short listing may deepen your appreciation of the film, and allow you to dazzle your friends in the post-film caffeine debrief. After dipping back into the novella, here goes…

No spoilers, but mention of central movie themes

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is about how humans come to understand the external world. It states that language determines how we perceive reality, that we construct reality through the language we learn.

Linguistics has two competing ideas about about what language is. One is that it’s a cultural artifact, the outcome of an evolutionary process, ordered but arbitrary. The other is that it’s a cognitive mental response – a rule-based outcome of the human brain’s encounter with external reality, bound by the structures of the brain itself. The first is particular, the other universal. There are lots of flavours, and lots of variant positions. (Was that Noam Chomsky the medivac team were carrying out on a stretcher?)

Do we think in words? Can we think without words, without metaphors to structure and taxonomies to enclose? Is human language intrinsically linked to the peculiarities of the evolved human mind, or is something more general?

Just how distorted or arbitrary *is* our mind’s version of reality? Are there thoughts that can’t be thunk, sentences that can’t be sentenced? There is no way we can know.

Culture and the Limits of Communication

In anthropology, Sapir-Whorf broadens out to examine the multiple expressions of human (and alien?) meaning – cultures – and their various (in)compatibilities. It questions the limits of communication and understanding between cultures. (After the events of the US Presidential election, I’d venture to say even within cultures). Everything is context, everything has a deeper meaning, a history, and a trajectory of change. Translation is always partial.

What are the rules separating the word for a ‘gift’ from ‘trade’? Or ‘tool’ from ‘sacred object’ or ‘symbol of contract’, or ‘weapon’? Every object is held within a web of created meaning, shared meaning, dynamic meaning.

And yes, as the movie notes in passing, one of the Sanskrit words for war, ‘gavisti’, does indeed mean ‘a desire for more cows’.

The Nature of Time

There are (at least!) two distinct views within science and philosophy on the nature of time. In Newtonian physics, time is sequential. A > B > C >D. Humans experience the world in temporal order, and perceive cause and effect.

However, General and Special Relativity model time as a fourth dimension of a single interwoven continuum called spacetime.

Fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric: there is no fundamental difference between past and future. Time has no inherent direction: the equations work both ways.

Eternalism is the view that everything in time exists at once, and can be experienced simultaneously.


Mathematics is a mental tool: Physical laws can be described in a multitude of different ways, some more intuitive than others.

The most common formulations of physics are causal, Newtonian. Others can be purposeful, even teleological, looking to outcomes.

For example, light bends in water, and the path traveled is always the one that takes least time. Fermat’s Principle describes the path of light through water by calculating minimal and maximal paths. We can say that the difference in the index of refraction causes light to bend when it hits water. Or, using Fermat, we can say that the light *decides* to minimise the time to travel to its destination, and has knowledge of effect before cause can be initiated. Two systems. One outcome.

Free Will and Paradox

If free will exists, we cannot know the future. Can we? Volition is an intrinsic part of consciousness. Isn’t it?

Language of course, is not only a vehicle of communication and thinking. It’s also a mode of action. It is performative, ritual.

Why would you go to see a play if you already know the script? Why would you listen to a song if you know every note?

Heh, I love this movie. See it. Have fun!