The relationship between cinema and science involves both scientific accuracy and attitudes toward science. It’s time to start a conversation about the latter.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has received well-deserved acclaim for its cinematic brilliance and well-researched, procedural approach to linguistics. It’s an expertly crafted work of science fiction, heavy on the “science.”
Only one issue: Linguistics is not science, and protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is not a scientist.
Before you rain down hellfire on me, let me explain: this is not what I think, nor is it what Arrival shows, but it is what the film tells us at times.
Early on in Arrival, Louise is rushed to the alien’s landing site via helicopter in the dead of night. On the trip, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who somewhat mockingly praises her work, tells her that “the cornerstone of civilization isn’t language, it’s science,” and is then introduced as a theoretical physicist – in that order. Louise argues the importance of language and communication, but does not address the language vs. science dichotomy he has created, so it lingers.
Much later on – and I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers – someone asks Louise for help in thinking of a term. Louise suggests a possibility and the person grows frustrated, insisting the term she’s looking for is more scientific, and Louise tells her that, since she wants science, she should go to another person.
This subtext is contrary to what we actually see in Arrival. Louise makes hypotheses about the language of the aliens (ultimately referred to as heptapods), comes up with methods of testing these hypotheses, collects data, analyzes it, and modifies her hypotheses accordingly. It’s the kind of love letter to the scientific method that scientists and science-lovers everywhere dream of seeing in films, but so rarely do. While it is exciting to see, especially in such a well-crafted film, it’s problematic that the film fails to explicitly connect this process, or Louise, to that general umbrella term of “science.”
Science fiction films connect to real-life science in two ways. The first is scientific accuracy – how well the film science lines up with what we actually know. It’s all about facts, and Arrival generally excels in this regard. The second, and much more often ignored, aspect is attitude – how the film feels about science, what stance it takes. It’s harder to define and has nothing to do with facts at all (a film could be extremely scientifically inaccurate and still have a positive attitude towards science, or vice-versa). It’s not just important, but arguably even more important than scientific accuracy now that we live in a time when “post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.
Because Arrival does not unequivocally label her a “scientist,” we cannot use Amy Adams’ brilliant portrayal of Louise to investigate this second relationship between Arrival and science. Instead, we must turn to Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly – and here is where the real concern lies.
Ian is introduced to us as your typical Socially Challenged Science Person. Not the bloodshot-eyed, borderline-crazy Independence Day kind of scientist, but his cooler cousin, who understands the need for basic hygiene but not the concept that “Hello” is a better greeting than “you’re wrong.”
In the Ted Chiang story “Story of Your Life,” from which Arrival is adapted, Ian’s identity as a theoretical physicist (or Gary, as he is named in the original) is of fundamental importance. He makes discoveries about the physics of heptapods that influence Louise’s discoveries about their language and vice-versa. In Arrival, Ian’s identity is ultimately so nominal that many reviews of the film refer to him as a mathematician instead of a theoretical physicist. Even the film’s official Instagram account misquotes him, crediting him with the line from Louise’s work that he strongly argues against in his very first scene.
In “Story of Your Life” you have a tale of scientific breakthroughs made possible by interdisciplinary collaboration. In Arrival, despite what the caption of that Instagram would seem to suggest, you ultimately have a very different story; one of conversion instead of collaboration.
Early on in the second half of the film, Louise has to justify her process of working with the heptapods to her gruff superior, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). She goes over to the nearest white board, covered in Ian’s work, erases a large portion of it, and proceeds to demonstrate her point. The attempted protest Ian makes is played for laughs (or just about as close to laughs as Arrival gets).
Ian’s character is quite like this whiteboard in the sense that it’s around this point that he appears to become, for lack of a better word, Louise’s assistant. He does the voiceover for a PSA-like montage covering the research being done on the heptapods, which is ultimately very linguistics-heavy and involves him defining terms like “nonlinear orthography.” Contrasted to how he is first introduced to the audience, he almost seems like an enlightened convert, seeking to spread the word. Ultimately, his greatest contribution that could arguably be related to theoretical physics is a discovery that essentially boils down to him converting a decimal to a fraction.
It’s no wonder that so many leave the film misremembering him as a mathematician.
The filmmakers had perfectly legitimate reasons for leaving out the vast majority of the physics of Ted Chiang’s original story. And since there’s no physics for him to do, having Ian help Louise certainly makes more sense than having him sitting around and twiddling his thumbs. But this also makes Arrival a story of conversion instead of true collaboration, with Ian switching to Louise’s way of thinking. And considering the false science vs. language dichotomy on which their relationship is founded, answering the question of Arrival’s attitude towards science becomes a lot more complicated.
Ultimately, this does not make Arrival any less of a good film, nor does it change the fact that it quite successfully manages to weave together hard science with emotional resonance – an important achievement. But it is still worth taking note of, because, as Arrival emphasizes, when it comes to matters of communication, seemingly small details can have far-reaching implications.