You read that term and what do you think? You know of my hobbies in astronomy and reading science fiction. If you are reading here, and even if you are turned off by one or both, you likely think of beings from another planet. Maybe they come to visit Earth. If I were more of a political animal, you might slide past the most common interpretation of that small phrase and consider I might be talking about Latin Americans being smart, or other nations penetrating the US with their spycraft operations.
I watched two documentaries recently that suggested ways in which plants seem to respond to their environment with a degree of intelligence, despite lacking brains, nervous systems, and sense organs we associate with animals, especially ourselves. I think also of the so-called battle of the sexes in which the thoughts and behaviors of men are inscrutable to women at times. And vice versa. In fact, one relationship guru from a few decades ago built a whole cottage industry teaching us about the chasm that separates Venus from Mars, despite the fact we live together on the planet in the middle. And now we have the phenomenon of trans persons at once being bothersome to some of us and our cherished notions of sex or gender or self-identity. Aliens, too–right?
I watched Arrival and I can’t recommend this film enough. As with Contact, the film’s braintrust found an intelligent and sensitive actor to anchor the lead role of a scientist who happens to be a woman and a person of intriguing depth. Now, there’s an alien thought–compared to the 50s. Or even the seventies.
Speaking of that decade, I think of a film like this one, considered to be groundbreaking. It’s still well-regarded, but I’d offer a counterpoint complaint about it. Four decades ago I didn’t like the way “peaceful” aliens were doing weird and clumsy things to people. It suggested to me they’re not really all that intelligent. Even if they are dealing with ants on an anthill.
Let’s compare the origins of these three stories:
- Close Encounters from 1978 was written by a filmmaker.
- Contact, 1997, by a scientist
- Arrival, 2016 by Ted Chiang, an actual science fiction author, a really good one
In 1997, they had an astronomer find the message from aliens and (mostly) decode it. In 2016, there’s an astrophysicist, but he takes a supporting role to a linguist. Ms Adams’ Louise Banks is recruited by the American government to communicate with aliens who are hovering over a valley in Montana. Eleven other strange vessels are hovering over other points around the world, and for a while, scientists are sharing results as the rest of society descends into chaos.
There’s little physical action in this film, a welcome relief (imo) from the avalanche of superhero cinema. Instead, there’s a thoughtful progress of understanding. The human “adversaries” among the military and spy agencies aren’t too badly cardboard. (Social media, however, is not treated as kindly–and given the tenor of the internet these days, I’d say they got off easy.) Dr Banks is largely successful in pushing back against her handlers who want fast action on their project before the Russians and the Chinese get somewhere first.
Louise is presented as a pro at the top of her game, but she battles the long hours, and a history that includes losing a daughter to a rare disease and a husband to divorce. Colleagues and viewers may wonder about her condition. But she solves the big riddle, and as the world lurches into war against aliens, there’s a plot revelation as stunning as anything I’ve seen in film.
Arrival confirms yet again that if you want to do good science fiction cinema or film, you go to a good science fiction writer. There’s no silliness in this movie. It’s outstanding sf because it takes a single concept (how aliens think and communicate) and extrapolates how one person moves through life in a new way because of her encounter.
When it comes to alien intelligence, we desperately need human intelligence to communicate wisely through our available media.