In Arrival, a Linguistics Professor Saves the World

One unfortunately common refrain over the past few decades has been “the decline of the humanities” in higher education – the trend of those subjects that once comprised the core of our educational system being increasingly passed over in favor of more “practical” degrees. While the 2009 recession didn’t help matters for the humanities and areas of the social sciences, it’s not just a popularity problem: politicians in Congress have been fighting for years to dismantle sources of funding for research in these fields, often leaving graduate students and professors with little support for their work. And now, with the Trump administration looking to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, things seem dire indeed. More than ever, we need to support the humanities (as well as the arts), and to shout their benefits from the rooftops. Thankfully, director Denis Villeneuve does just that in Arrival, one of the top-rated films of 2016 and an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. This cerebral-yet-affecting sci-fi flick operates on the premise that research in linguistics – not engineering, not economics, not biology, but linguistics, the field your parents may have told you not to study – has the potential to save the world.

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In Arrival, Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics who has worked on code for the U.S. military and is recruited, covertly and suddenly, to spearhead communications with aliens (which they call “Heptapods”) who have landed on earth. (Interesting side note – the only woman who has won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying a professor was also in the field of linguistics: that would be Julianne Moore in Still Alice.) Adams’s performance was heralded as a rare thing: she plays Louise as a strong, no-nonsense scholar who has clearly learned to separate her work from her emotional life (much like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity). She’s tough but not cold, sensitive but not a puddle of mush. It’s a finely nuanced performance, and a gift for female academics who aren’t used to seeing themselves portrayed as heroines onscreen.

Yes, Arrival is a movie about aliens, and yet instead of an action-packed thrill ride it’s surprisingly quiet and contemplative. As in every other alien movie, the aliens are certainly a threat, and a sense of foreboding cloaks every scene. But instead of fighting the heptapods, the film is about understanding them. And how do they attempt to do that? Through scholarly fieldwork, of course.

The central scenes in Arrival focus on Louise and Ian Donnelly, her physicist colleague (played by Jeremy Renner, solid but not entirely believable as a physicist) carefully observing the Heptapods, attempting to communicate with them, and then retreating to the lab to piece together what they’ve learned. Louise and Ian painstakingly plot out interactions with the creatures in order to decode the alien language, a “non-linear orthography,” using software to recreate and analyze their “logograms.” (Slate conducted an interesting interview with a linguist on the ins and outs of Louise’s work in the film.) The two clash with global leaders and U.S. military personnel, who are getting impatient and ready to use force, but they press on anyway, despite the fact that the process of decoding the alien language is taking a mental toll on Louise. To say more would be to give away a major plot twist. But let’s just say that Louise’s work is so successful that an epilogue of sorts finds her publishing a book and lecturing to rapt audiences around the country.

Though the humanities continue to face an uphill battle for funding, it’s encouraging to see this kind of positive representation in popular culture. This isn’t just a pipe-smoking professor reclining in his office, or a montage of an intrepid researcher spending a day at the library. It’s an accurate representation of the type of work that many humanities and social science scholars do without fanfare on a regular basis, and the potentially life-saving applications of that work. And perhaps best of all, it’s led by a strong, capable woman, whose credibility is never once questioned on the basis of her gender. Louise is fictional, but there are many out there like her – incredible female scholars that we’ll be lucky to have in our corner should the Heptapods come for real.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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