Some Ramblings - Arrival by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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'They should have sent a poet', cries Dr. Arroway, in Bob Zemeckis' 'Contact', chancing upon a celestial dazzle deep in space. Entrusted with the responsibility of recording whatever she was witnessing in the voyage to the unknown, she finds words failing her while trying to the describe the majesty of the infinite. Science might still lead the way in man's quest of exploring his neighborhood in space in the hope of finding the first co-habitant in the cosmos, but upon finding one, language comes to the fore side-stepping science when communicating with his neighbor - the what, the who, the where and the why. There was an interesting essay (lesson) in 9th grade English in yesteryears' curriculum about how the brain works when confronted with a new language, particularly in a child. The act of early association between the need and the deed (crying to food, laugh to pleasure, shout to pain et al) giving way to the relating of the physical expression (crying, shouting, laughing) to the word, and then the toughest of all, learning where to put what word, the grammar, to convey the idea across, all happen so instinctively and naturally in a child that the mechanics behind the brain processing all this information would put a super computer to shame any given day. The reason why that lesson (essay) focussed its efforts on a child was while an adult's learning of a new language happens at a logical level, the child's process is very mysterious with everything happening at a sub-atomic level, with only the result to show for and never the rigor behind it....much like, the mystery of the space.

'Arrival', at its heart, is about that communication, between humans and the aliens, when the latter arrive at earth's doorstep announced. Movies involving aliens (depending on the genre - action, thriller, horror, comedy even) conveniently step over this most important and yet most painful process of establishing the baseline launguage with the unannounced visitors to understand the motive behind their reach out program and instead jump directly into the hostilities and other proclivities, ignorantly proclaiming/assuming that this race, that risked it all in space-time travel coming from far corners of the universe, wants to take over a weak blue planet in an even weaker solar system for their eventual survival. Tim Burton's alien comedy 'Mars Attacks!' even makes fun of the humans getting this baseline language wrong, completely misreading the intentions of the aliens and end up almost getting annihilated in the process. (reminds of the wonderful rejoinder to the famous line 'I see dead people' from 'Sixth Sense', when the Bruce Willis character asks the little kid, 'what are they trying to say?'). That is right, before deciding on the intent, it helps to first understand the nature of the content. It has been a bone of contention between the linguists and the scientists deciding which one invention helped shape the path of the humankind, and while the scientists point to the fire and the wheel that started it all, the linguists bring out their big guns with the invention of language being the cornerstone in human evolution, for, had it not been for the ease of the usage and the codifying of the constructs that constitute the language, mankind might have been still cavorting in loin cloths and living in caves, and all evidence certainly bolsters the latter's argument.

The question as to what could have been the trigger for why the first human who sat down to formualize the rules of communication did what he did, remains a mystery. In '2001: A Space Odyssey', an unexplained black monolith appears overnight in the middle of an ape tribe, and which upon touching the monolith for the first time, takes its first step in the human evolution journey, and that is of developing territorial tendencies through the use of violence (and in a brilliant stroke, concludes that every thing that precedes in human progress stems from those protective tendencies, indicated in that famous match cut of the bone that is thrown in the air by the ape suddenly becoming a space shuttle that glides gracefully in the space). 'Arrival' takes a similar route of prodding mankind into realizing bigger thing about themselves (and their relation to that other abstract thing that shapes and judges their performance - time) by pushing them into adpating a new form of communication (as a character in the movie notes that learning a new language during the adult life has an effect of entirely rewiring the brain). The brilliance of 'Arrival' is how it reaches for big ideas by employing elementary tools and how progress appears, first, at a very elemental, subjective level (that of an individual) and not in some sweeping strokes that changes the entire humanity in one single event (as the alien character in 'Contact' quips, 'small steps Ellie, small steps', in response to the question what next, now that humans discovered aliens).

The reigning master of muted treatment, Denis Villeneuve, adapts a perfect pitch to the proceedings about a linguist discovering more about herself by grasping for things beyond her reach. Despite the obligatory drumbeats of war, attacks and hostile reactions that surround the stoic presence of the alien visitor, Denis doesn't allow the focus to stray away from the protagonist and her efforts to establish the initial contact by keeping all the bluster in the background and off-screen. The movie is so little about the final payoff (though it certainly calls into question the nature of time forcing the viewer to reconsider the entire proceedings in a new light) and is more about the process of self discovery, one small revelation at a time. That's what boils down in the end too, it doesn't matter how huge or mysterious or confounding the concept of universe is, what truly matters is what is man's relation to it, how he relates to it and what he does with that understanding (would that make him more humble or paranoid or inspired?). Interestingly, science can only get him to the doorstep of that realization and it is the language that allows him to walk into the door, see, observe and relate. Concepts as these that exist on the far edges of human's capacity of understanding require every faculty - science, philosophy, arts, ethics, religion, spirituality and humanity even - ever conceived by man to come together to render a more comprehensive picture of the view. By that token, 'Arrival' isn't just science fiction, it is a treatise on causality, determinism, free will and fate all rolled in one, in the garb of a grade school language science lesson.

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