Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, and his most successful to date, Arrival has hit the circuits to praise and favourable reviews, largely as a result of its ability to transcend the science of science fiction and achieve emotional intensity, while remaining thought provoking and intriguing. Science fiction fans are able to appreciate the extra-terrestrial presence that forms the structure of the film, while strangers to the genre may enjoy the human – and alien – connection that forms the film’s substance.
Arrival, a film about aliens struggling to communicate with humans, answers most of its own questions, using the character of linguist Louise Banks as a conduit between the complex science, and the audience, in order to explain the fundamental differences between the aliens and us. The most important of these questions is the basis for the whole film, ‘What if aliens existed, but had different concepts of time and language to us?’. And while Arrival answers this beautifully, it does not answer the more implicit question that follows, ‘What if they had different technology to us?’.
The very first image the film gives us of alien technology is a large shell-like ship free of wires, buttons or anything bearing semblance to our technology. Even when Banks and her fellow crew-members enter the ship through a door that only opens once a day, we see no sign of any technology that we would recognise. This begs the question, what is the science behind the interstellar travel that the ship is evidently capable of?
The science fiction genre often assumes that if aliens exist and are capable of interstellar travel, that their technology is simply a much more advanced version of ours, or at least similar enough to our technology to be understandable. But Arrival flips this on its head as the scientists in the film are just as confused as the rest of us as to how the heptapods – as they call the aliens – got here.
The only possible answer is that they developed in an entirely different way to us – not only physically, but also technologically. Perhaps this is because they have different resources to us, or even because they are so much more intelligent that they are able to supersede what we know as technology in favour of organically powered vehicles.
But how far do these differences stretch? One can only wonder if the aliens have communication devices – an equivalent of cell phones – or if they are naturally able to communicate. Do they have entertainment systems? Do they even understand the concept of entertainment? In Arrival we see an interstellar craft, but we have no idea how the aliens travel within their own planet. Perhaps there are smaller versions of their shell-ships, equivalent to cars.
Those who believe in advanced alien life on other planets are almost certain that the aliens have technology far beyond our own, and expect to benefit from an eventual encounter in which we learn and are able to develop. But this would not be possible if the alien technology is utilised only in conjunction with their own biology, or if it is not technology at all. There is also a strong possibility that alien technology is not necessarily more advanced than ours, simply incredibly different, which makes it almost impossible to compare.
Finally, we must ask the question of whether or not aliens even have technology at all. Perhaps life does exist on other planets but it has developed far slower than ourselves. Images pop to mind of humanoid creatures trapped in the stone age. In this case, we would be sharing our technological developments with them, if we do, in fact, choose to violate the Prime Directive.
At the end of the day, all of these questions are purely hypothetical as the only evidence that aliens exist is the magnitude of the universe, making the chances of extraterrestrial life very high. Nevertheless, it is interesting to wonder whether alien tech is even comparable to our own, never-mind more advanced. If Arrival is anything to go by, alien tech will serve only to confuse and alienate us (excuse the pun). Although I am not sure if this is any worse than an alien colony of Apple-sheep.