Since we’re on the brink of major revolution in astronomy (mainly due to exploration of exoplanets) sci-fi and especially Alien encounter subject becomes more relevant than ever in history. In mass consciousness blockbusters like “Armageddon” or “Independence Day” are too ridiculous to even entertain. How would “close encounters of the third kind” really look like though? Are we ready to discover other live forms in the Universe? Is our civilization and humankind mature enough to digest knowledge about universe and our place in it (however insignificant or extraordinary it might be)?
Let imagine that aliens really visited Earth. What kind of civilization value entertainment more than improving and securing its own life; speculation and gambling more than understanding world and itself? What would aliens think once they realized our heroes are footballers and actors – people who don’t bring any tangible value to society? It seems the most impressive skills humans have are kicking the ball and pretending to be someone else. Long time ago we used to grant special credit to shamans or mages – non-productive parasites (in biological sense) who would let us escape reality. We want to be detached even more nowadays through internet (and social network), fake TV shows, VR and video games. We need even more escape routes to fully enjoy lives – what a paradox: live less to live more. Withdraw from reality to experience it more! How come after we invest so much in developing our brain, main concern becomes to switch it off as often as we can and float in the relaxing ether of artificial stimulants, weightless simulacra? Laziness looks like a virtue and consequence of a success. Everybody seems to be obsessed with watching others rather than living their own life. We like being fooled into made up stories rather than pursue understanding and enriching ourselves. Distance between humans expands like a universe – we find it difficult to communicate with each other so how do we expect to communicate with extraterrestrial beings (even if we could cooperate on a global scale in this matter)?
Aliens in “Arrival” still use sounds and visual representation. But imagine language based on physical properties of matter and energy like magnetism or electricity, or form of nanotechnology: tinkering with atoms and quantum forces as a social interaction, something we would hardly classify as communication (although we thought of telekinesis or telepathy which rely on the same properties). Would we even understand that aliens try to communicate? Or gravity for that matter… cosmic language on a gigantic scale. Why do we even resume “first contact” would have a linguistic basis? Famous examples here are “Solaris” – alien is an ocean, communicating subliminally through memories and astronauts don’t even realize this initially or “Contact”, where aliens let us visit them “beyond time and space” and talk to us through personal experience of one human being which nobody else believes. It’s highly likely that we wouldn’t even notice if more advanced aliens used other dimensions or physical properties we don’t yet understand – like humans trying to communicate with cyanobacteria.
We have actually used Hydrogen – the most abundant element in the universe (as for now, before we understand what dark energy is) as a universal reference in a gold-anodized aluminium plaques messages lounged on board Pioneer 10 and 11 in 1972/73 and Golden Record sent with Voyager in 1977. These are the most famous attempts to predict what would be understandable without Earth context – sound is based on a specific air-pressure (and human sensitivity to it), semiotics has a visual and cultural bias (you need to have eyes to see symbols and basic concept of symbols to distinguish them from anything else), even medium we use to share it has its frequency and anthropocentric shape. We are already born with “linguistic software” like Chomsky claims so our approach has strong prejudice from the very beginning.
“Arrival” is nostalgic, personal and psychologically rich vision, like all Villeneuve’s movies (based on a short story by Ted Chiang). It tells more about people than aliens, which is usually the case when dealing with unknown (Conquistadors learned more about themselves than Indians, Crusaders reinforced their beliefs rather than understood situation in the Middle East and most encounters with natives in Australia and Africa were like botanical updates in classification tables). In 1964 Soviet astronomer Nicolai Kardashev defined scale measuring civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use for communication:
Type I civilization—also called planetary civilization—can use and store energy which reaches its planet from the parent star.
Type II civilization can harness the total energy of its planet’s parent star (the most popular hypothetical concept being the Dyson sphere—a device which would encompass the entire star and transfer its energy to the planet(s)).
Type III civilization can control energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy.
If we are early adopters of Type I (not being able to sustain renewable energy source while exploiting and destroying environment), where are the imaginary Aliens able to interstellar travel and breaking physical laws that binds us? How many civilizations can actually survive more than million years without natural or self-inflicted extinction? So many thinks can go wrong – even on our local, primitive scale. Maybe this is what Heptapods suggest at the end of the film? They may need us once we grow up and survive as a specie. Maybe there is something we need to learn before we leave our earthly cocoon and turn into a cosmic butterfly of a civilization.