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Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 21: In 'Arrival,' The Aliens Talk In Circles

A linguist (Amy Adams) learns to speak fluent hula hoop in <em>Arrival</em>.
A linguist (Amy Adams) learns to speak fluent hula hoop in <em>Arrival</em>.

Once a day, until Dec. 25, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.

Historically, writers of science fiction tend to enjoy fleshing out the means by which the human species might communicate with beings from other worlds. China Mieville, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, and many, many other authors have grappled with the chewy notion of first-contact linguistics.

On television and in the movies, however, science fiction tends to wave away the issue, so as to get to the pew!-pew!-pew! faster. It gets ignored completely, or paid lip-service via the invocation of "universal translator" technology (read: magic).

But Denis Villeneuve's deliberate, meditative and humane science-fiction film chooses to make the myriad challenges of interspecies communication its subject. Amy Adams's linguist leads a team of scientists attempting to understand what a visiting alien race wants with Earth ... and with Earthlings.

It's such a marvelously wonky idea, to build a film around decryption and space-linguistics. It's as if Close Encounters of the Third Kind hadn't just featured the scientists played by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban, but had revolved around them.

The scene in which the aliens first respond to Adams' halting attempts to communicate via written language with a "written" language of their own — a series of floating inky pictograms, perfect circles festooned with organic filigree — is breathtaking. First and foremost, because it's just good filmmaking: an ingenious approach to representing the chasm of utter foreignness that yawns between our species and another.

But it's also doing real, narrative work, offering as it does our first, sly hint at the film's structure ... and its organizing principle.

Previous Pop Culture Advent Calendar Entries

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9

Day 10

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 16

Day 17

Day 18

Day 19

Day 20

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