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Arrival 2017 movie is, to be sure, an alien flick. But under that sci-fi cover is a movie about communication, and the effort needed to understand someone (or, in this case, something) who looks and speaks differently than you do.
In Arrival movie, this patient work applies to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is called to Montana, by the US Military, to contact with an alien race known as the “heptapods.” (Heads up: Minor spoilers lie ahead.) The aliens write with “logograms,” circular glyphs that resemble coffee stains. The symbols are simultaneously mesmerizing and utterly foreign.
“We wanted to bring a language that is aesthetically amusing,” production designer Patrice Vermette claims. “But it needed to be alien to our civilization, alien to our technology, alien to everything our mind knows. When Louise first encounters the language, you don’t want to give it away to the viewers that it’s actually a language.”
That’s because Louise doesn’t yet know. In this early scene, she decides to try something new. The alien’s audible clicks and rumbles haven’t made much sense so far, thus she scribbles on a whiteboard and tries out visual, not sonic, communication. A splattered circle of dark ink, emitted from a heptapod hand-tentacle, is her reply. It’s her first real lead on how to talk to the aliens.
Vermette knew from the start that the alien language would appear in circles — screenwriter Eric Heisserer noted as much in the script. The aliens regard time as non-linear, and the language needed to reflect that. But consultations with linguists and graphic art makers kept leaning onto fictional alphabets that Vermette claims hewed too closely to familiar systems like hieroglyphics, or code. It felt too human. Then one night, Vermette’s wife, artist Martine Bertrand, offered to sketch some ideas. The next morning, Vermette came downstairs to find 15 inky logograms on the kitchen table. “I said, ‘eureka.’”
The shapes in Bertrand’s drawings made it into the film. Vermette and his team added meaning to the inky tendrils that project from each ring, creating a dictionary consisting of 100 symbols. A single logogram can express a simple thought (“Hi”) or a complex one (“Hi Louise, I’m an alien but I come in peace”). The difference is in the shape’s complexity. A logogram’s weight carries meaning, too: A thicker swirl of ink can indicate a sense of urgency; a thinner one suggests a quiet tone. A little hook added in one symbol makes it a question. The system allows each logogram to express a bundle of ideas without adhering to any traditional rules of syntax or sequence.
These slight differences don’t register easily; if they were, Arrival would be a much shorter installment. So the film’s design team brought in Stephen Wolfram, founder of Mathematica coding software, and his son, Christopher Wolfram, to analyze the language the way Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) eventually do on screen. “If we’re in this situation and trying to communicate with aliens, what thing would you actually do, if you wanted to understand them in some way?” Christopher says. Early on, the Wolframs cut the logograms into pie-shaped sections of 12, and through their software found that certain patterns repeat. That registered intent: “Even though it’s splotchy, they’re exactly the same, and very precise, so there might be meaning,” Christopher says.
And there is: Vermette and his team designed some etymological connective tissue between the symbols. The logograms for “life” and “Louise,” for instance, look similar because Louise is a living thing. Only a small amount of logograms have translations, but both Vermette and Christopher Wolfram inform it would be possible to develop a much bigger vocabulary. The designs and tools are in place. All that’s missing is the will—and a lot of patience.