I'm a Scientist, and 'Arrival' Is the Greatest Science Movie of All Time

Published On 01/25/2017 Published On 01/25/2017
arrival is the greatest scientist movie ever
Paramount Pictures

Arrival is now available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and other VOD platforms.

A major part of a scientist's job is saving the world, according to your typical Marvel movie. Thanks to Hollywood, I occasionally imagine myself fighting alongside Iron Man -- a cognitive neuroscientist with shinier hair, wittier repartee, and all the answers.

I don't think I'm the only scientist that harbors sexy scientist fantasies; that is, fantasies in which science is sexy (although Hollywood is responsible for plenty of the other kind as well). Take the laboratory of neuroimaging at my graduate university: For reasons unknown, it contained both an entryway locked by a Minority Report-style iris scanner and a room full of servers covered in oscillating rainbow lights that made Hackers look understated. The day-to-day practice of science isn't generally thrilling, so we do what we can.

So yes, I've often wondered how well I (and my hair) would hold up against a threat designed for a special-effects-heavy blockbuster. In 2016, Hollywood finally delivered an answer. In the now-Academy-Award-nominated Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a social scientist, a professor, a mother, and eventually, a hero. In the end she, quietly, saves the world. After watching the movie, I found myself reflecting again and again on my own experiences. This is what science actually looks like -- and without explosions or caped crusaders swooping into action, the authenticity could easily be overlooked.

Paramount Pictures

What a real scientist's "secret lab" really looks like

In movies, we often see scientists at the lab, but we rarely see them in their other natural habitat: the classroom. Several notable exceptions exist -- A Beautiful Mind, Still Alice, and the new Ghostbusters showcase the academic existence -- but the scientists that kick butt in movies are usually tinkerers, inventors, and/or engineers. Tony Stark would never wait for an Institutional Review Board to approve his experiments. Even Kristin Wiig's Erin Gilbert doesn't start ghost-busting until Columbia gives her the boot. Hollywood has been fairly clear that science is about making cool shit. Spaceships. Weapons. Mind-enhancing drugs. Anything fit for an arsenal.

Arrival, on the other hand, begins with Louise walking into her classroom to deliver a lecture. I was struck by an interesting detail: As she places her bag on the table and looks out into the lecture hall, the perspective of the camera is exactly correct. I've stood in that spot many times as students shuffled into class, chatting and checking their phones. It's rare, I realized, to see the classroom from the professor's angle -- from my angle -- on the screen.

But there it was: exactly as I had witnessed it many times before. And when the classroom failed to fill up, and then the alarms began to sound... well, that was a little too real. As Louise hurried out of the classroom to her car, I was reminded of the places I've been in my life when I've heard terrible news, or the confusion and panic that arises before any actual news is available. If the world is going to end in my lifetime, I thought, I'll probably hear about it in a university classroom.

Louise never flips from professorship to sci-minded MacGyver. Like many other social scientists, she studies. She classifies. She translates. Previously, her life's work has helped the government unravel the messages of foreign rebels. This short taste of what happens when the military harnesses research has made her wary of the whole operation. "You made quick work of those insurgents," she quips to Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), whose presence reminds her of a consultant job gone morally gray. Weber has arrived with a new mission, and this one is, at first, indescribable: translate the inscrutable rustlings and groans of the alien species that has arrived on Earth.

Paramount Pictures

Your "fuck yeah, science!" memes are doing it wrong

Louise is summoned unceremoniously from her lakeside residence (which genius location scouts get exactly right, finding a place that looks like the West Elm storeroom version of a linguistics professor's house). Weber gives her 10 minutes to pack. That made me panic. How do you pack in 10 minutes to save the world? Add in nausea from a helicopter ride, a cute theoretical physicist co-worker, a surprise round of vaccinations, and it's hard to imagine anyone doing their best work on a mission, let alone a professor used to the pace of academic life. What are the effects of adrenaline on ability to perform discourse analysis?

Movie scientists typically rise to the occasion without turbulence. That's not so crazy -- easier to believe than, say, the idea that Earth's fate is dependent on a panaceatic mineral called unobtanium, only available on a moon inhabited by 10ft-tall blue humanoids. Working under time pressure isn't a foreign concept in academia; my septuagenarian mentor was known to pull the occasional all-nighter to meet a deadline. Real scientists working in the military often deal with a frenetic pace and sleep deprivation. James Cameron got this part right with Sigourney Weaver's Avatar character Grace Augustine (then again, she was later uploaded into a sentient tree. Baby steps.).

After so many examples of scientists kicking ass, no questions asked, Arrival's depiction of Louise, hands shaking with exhaustion, mind rattled by feverish dreams, was a welcome shift towards reality. She is freaking. out. Ian, her theoretical physicist sidekick, is freaking out too. "Holy fuck!" he says, when they enter the alien spacecraft and gravity goes sideways. He isn't working Deadpool-style to lighten up the moment. Seriously, guys: Holy fuck. The world is going sideways. You'd say it, too.

And so, as I hope I might also do, the two academics keep it together and get to work. Louise may be sleep-deprived and scared, but she has to get an essential answer from the aliens, and in order to do that, she has to figure out how to ask the question: What is your purpose on Earth?

"Scientific progress, by and large, is about uncertainty."

In movies and television, science is often presented as the flipside of humanity: perfect, shiny, logical, unequivocal. Breaking Bad cemented the idea. "Yeah, science!" Jesse yells, when Walter discovers the new way of cooking meth that will help them build an empire. Science is. Science answers. Science fixes the problem. When it's time to save the world, science is practically a superpower.

This idea of Science with a capital "S" extends beyond movies and TV. It's the viral fuel for "I Fucking Love Science" and the webcomic "xkcd." It's earrings shaped like molecules, and pictures of stars, and "this is your brain on LSD." It's mostly harmless, but a little smug, too. It's reading The God Delusion while manspreading on the subway.

Don't get me wrong: It's great to be pumped about science. Frankly, with current looming threats, it's frightening that more people aren't pumped about science. But while science has sniffed out plenty of answers, making for cool pictures and factoids, they're not the day-to-day experience of a scientist. Scientific progress, by and large, is about uncertainty. What is your question? How are you defining the question? OK no, but seriously, how are you defining the question? What tools do you use to ask it? Can you afford that? What if the response isn't what you expect? As superlative declarations about science go, I appreciate Jesse's enthusiasm, but I'm a bigger a fan of The Martian's Mark Watney: "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."  

Cringe-worthy as it may be, it highlights something that Matt Damon's sci-fi movie, and Arrival, get right: Science, by and large, is the process.

Paramount Pictures

Meeting the impossible demands of non-science folk

I call Louise a scientist, but actual linguists might categorize themselves in either the social sciences or humanities. Arrival detects the difference; Louise doesn't totally identify with her physics peers, and in a weaker moment, she snaps at her daughter over homework. "You want science? Call your father!"

Linguistics may be "softer" than physics or chemistry, but it is the approach to all three, the process of science, that ties these varied disciplines together. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his wisdom, once tweeted: "In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That's why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard." The study of human  (and non-human!) behavior is a mess -- not because we're irresponsible or lazy or bad at math, but because living creatures are messy and complicated, and the methods we can use are limited by ethical considerations in a way that other sciences often are not. And so the conclusions we can draw from the science of behavior end up being, by and large, probabilistic. This person might behave in this way. This creature is likely to respond to that prompt. The people of the United States of America, distributed as they are along electoral lines, will probably not vote for Donald Trump. You get the idea. It's frustrating sometimes, but what is the alternative? Giving up?

As Louise and Ian learn the Heptapod language and develop a channel of communication, we peek into a true scientific process. We don't just get a montage. The work is repetitive and only occasionally rewarding. "Eureka!" moments are anti-climactic. And the duo makes their strides, in part, because Ian is willing to put his ego aside and follow Louise's lead. A cynical person might call a male physicist playing the research assistant role to a female linguist the true "science fiction." I'm an optimist (a necessary outlook for an untenured researcher in 2017) so I'll buy it. Eventually, Louise and Ian are ready, or close enough, and the clock is ticking. So they ask the burning question: What is your purpose on Earth?

"That's how science works: the more you know, the more you realize that you are just scratching the surface."

The answer, it turns out, is "Offer weapon." Or, hold on... maybe it's "Use weapon?" Or "Offer tool?" On most days of a linguistics professor's life, a tricky translation would be an opportunity for some hearty discussion, or maybe a conference presentation. Now, though, shit is real. The president needs an answer, and the answer definitely cannot be, "Well, you see, there is an interesting nuance to the term tool..."

The trade-off between providing useful answers and being upfront about the limitations of any inquiry is one that we often deal with in my field, cognitive neuroscience. Here's a real-world example: In the 2005 landmark case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court determined that individuals cannot be sentenced to capital punishment for crimes committed before they turned 18. Evidence from psychology and cognitive neuroscience suggested that the parts of the brain involved in decision-making do not fully mature until a person is in their 20s. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote "as the scientific and sociological studies... tend to confirm, '[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults.'"

Subsequent majority opinions in other cases have also cited neuroimaging findings in decisions about the sentencing of juveniles. Among certain audiences, something about the nature of brain data in particular draws a stronger argument than psychological data, even when they both help us to draw the same conclusion. Brains feel more biological, more objective, more, well, science-y.

The neuroimaging research that was cited in these cases was brand-new. The entire field is brand-new on the grand timeline of scientific research. We are still developing the methods used to study the human brain. Every year, scientists gain greater insight into the nuances, the caveats, and the limitations of our current understanding of adolescent brain development. We could say, "Sorry, government, check back with us in 20 years when we are super-duper confident about our findings," but in the meantime, how many young men and women's lives would be irrevocably altered? And who is to say that we'll have it all figured out in 20 years?

That's how science works: The more you know, the more you realize that you are just scratching the surface. It's never done and finished, especially when it comes to the stuff that keeps evolving, like people and brains and language. The worry of Arrival, though, is that unless Louise comes up with an answer fast, a lot of people might stop evolving -- or even existing -- altogether.    

Paramount Pictures

Arrival's big twist is forgivable

Science is filled with uncertainty, but sometimes a decision must be made, and we do the best we can with the data we have. Louise asks her question and gets an answer, if a less-than-satisfying one. An explosion goes off. World leaders go rogue. The US needs to act.

Scientific progress doesn't have an end point, but the credits have to roll eventually, so Arrival tears through the timeline with a twist. An easy out, perhaps, but the movie shows its work. To me, it wasn't the twist that made the movie, but rather everything that came before it. Hey, I'm a behavioral scientist; it's rarely about the lightbulb moment. Answers come slowly and haltingly and eventually -- maybe even before we know that they're ready -- they might inspire a landmark decision.

In the end, Louise manages to save the world. Her data isn't enough, of course, but data never is: It's one thing to have some understanding of the answer to a question and another to know how to apply it. With the help of a little deus ex machina, she accomplishes both. The epilogue of the film is a glimpse into Louise's life as it carries on: She returns home. She teaches. She studies. She writes a book. The process, as it usually does, carries on.

Over the years, movies have given us no shortage of scientist superheroes; usually, though, these scientists have bionic bodies and ironic one-liners. Louise is the closest approximation I've ever seen to the kinds of scientists who might actually save the world -- our world, that is. In 2017, a year when even the scientific answers that are incredibly well-established are coming under fire, it's refreshing to see that Louise's story has struck a chord, both with the Academy and with the public.

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Lauren Sherman is a postdoctoral researcher in Temple University's Department of Psychology, where she studies the teen brain on social media. She would still work with Iron Man if asked.


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