What Can Sci-Fi Movies Teach Us About Human-Alien Communication?

As it turns out, movies about aliens often end up being movies about humans.
October 5, 2020
What Can Sci-Fi Movies Teach Us About Human-Alien Communication?

If an alien spaceship were to land on Earth right now, it would be the most significant event to happen in any of our lifetimes. While scientists have theorized about intelligent life in the universe for centuries, having concrete evidence before our eyes would completely change our conception of our place in the cosmos. But one issue will immediately arise: how do we communicate with this other species? While we have yet to face this problem in reality, language in sci-fi movies can give us a hypothetical peek at what the future could hold. Assuming the aliens don’t start shooting us with death rays immediately, of course.

There are basically two ways that alien language in sci-fi movies is addressed. Sure, some writers just use universal translators or telepathy to explain the cross-species communication, but others find more clever ways to deal with it. Here are a few methods movie writers have used, along with some of the most iconic alien movies of sci-fi history.

Making The Aliens Incommunicado: Alien

There are plenty of movies about aliens — particularly of the horror genre — where there’s simply no chance of communication. Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien doesn’t spend much time trying to reason with the horrible creature that is killing the crew. Their inability to communicate makes the aliens far more alien-like and unknowable.

This trope brings up an important point: the inability to communicate goes hand in hand with the feeling of fear. Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the titular alien, said in an interview that he purposefully didn’t give the alien eyes because it made the creature all the more terrifying. Humans use eyes to figure out what a creature is thinking. In the same way, creating a creature without a recognizable language makes them scarier. People hate unknowns, and when you take away language — the primary way humans are able to express their thoughts and emotions — it can trigger a fight-or-flight reaction.

In all likelihood, humans and aliens won’t be able to communicate very quickly. There are plenty of circumstances in which it may be impossible for humans and aliens to talk to each other. Humans are able to communicate with each other because we have the same brains and bodies, which means language can only vary so much. With aliens, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll speak; they might not even use auditory communication methods, opting for chemicals or smells or who knows what else.

Going Past First Contact: Avatar

While the first moment of mutual discovery between humans and aliens will certainly be exciting, that’s not the only story there is to tell in science fiction. Many movies are set years or months past the first moment of contact.

Take Avatar, the very expensive 2009 James Cameron film, which is only the first in a whole series of movies. In it, humans travel far from Earth to exploit the resources of another planet, inhabited by creatures called Na’vi. The Na’vi speak — wait for it — Na’vi, which is a constructed language created by linguist Paul Frommer (who continues to write about it on his blog Na’viteri). It’s become a common practice to put constructed language in sci-fi movies because it gives the fictional world far more verisimilitude. Despite all the work put into the Na’vi language, most of what you hear in the film is English, because the Na’vi have already learned English to communicate with the humans who had come before.

These movies make several assumptions about how communicating with aliens will go. For this to work, the alien language will have to be pretty much the same as any human language, which won’t necessarily be the case. Avatar itself is a metaphor for colonialism, which makes this choice fitting for the movie.

Centering The Communication Gap: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Though it’s one of the most beloved movies of the 1980s, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial isn’t often taken seriously for its sci-fi realism. People prefer to focus on the coming-of-age motif and the young Drew Barrymore playing a comedic role. Yet the film actually does a pretty good example of showing off the importance of language in sci-fi movies.

In the movie, a young child named Elliot stumbles upon a lost alien — later named E.T. — and tries to take care of him, while avoiding the government agents who want to capture this creature from another planet. One of the central tensions in the film is that Elliot can’t understand E.T., and therefore has to figure out a way to teach E.T. how to speak English. It just so happens that E.T. is able to produce human language sounds, which is certainly not a given, but we’ll let Steven Spielberg have that one.

Over the course of the film, E.T. learns to speak English much like a baby does. One of the first scenes between Elliot and E.T. involves Elliot showing E.T. objects and naming them. One of the subtler jokes of the film is that all of the objects Elliot tries to explain are just a little off. He shows E.T. a “car” and says that’s how humans get around, but it’s actually a toy car. He then picks up a “peanut” and says humans eat them, but it’s actually a peanut-shaped coin bank. Needless to say, this would be a pretty confusing time for a young alien. Despite this rough beginning, E.T. does slowly learn to talk. Coincidentally enough, E.T. says his first words when he’s watching Sesame Street, a show that explicitly explains language to children. 

Then there’s E.T.’s trademark phrase: “E.T. phone home.” This might sound simple enough, but the movie spends considerable time showing how E.T. is able to figure out these concepts. First, Elliot and his siblings explain that E.T. refers to the alien itself. Then, E.T. learns about phones from a television show. And finally, Elliot tries to figure out where E.T. comes from, and introduces him to the concept of “home.” His grammar isn’t perfect — and it’s never explained how E.T. learns subject-verb-object word order — but it’s a compelling narrative.

Bringing In A Linguist: Arrival

If you hear the phrase “language in sci-fi movies,” it will almost always refer to the 2016 film Arrival. The main character is a linguist, after all. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) racing against time to decipher an alien language.

In the movie, alien pods descend onto Earth and land in various places around the globe. On set time intervals, the pods open and allow humans to approach the aliens (called heptapods because of their seven tentacle-like appendages). Banks is enlisted by the U.S. Military to try to decode the creatures’ language. Right away, it’s clear that spoken communication will be impossible; the heptapods make a kind of roar that is indecipherable. Fortunately, there’s an easy way around it: heptapods can “write” in the air using ink that their bodies produce. Thus ensues a very difficult game of charades.

The process of decoding the alien language in Arrival is incredibly arduous, but at its heart it’s mostly pretty simple. Banks writes a word on a whiteboard and demonstrates it in some way. If the word is “human,” she can show herself or her partner (this isn’t too different from Elliot’s method in E.T., if you think about it). Then, the heptapods write the word in their language, which the human linguists record to decode later. This then has to be repeated for every piece of vocabulary, and after a while will need to be built up into phrases and sentences, and introducing the concept of grammar is even more difficult. Overall, this isn’t too dissimilar from what some linguists do in their work (though not all linguists work on this kind of stuff, to be fair).

By the end of the film, Banks understands the language well enough that she can read it without consulting any notes. In real life, it would likely take much longer for that to happen, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. The big reveal at the end — spoiler alert — is that the heptapods experience all time at once, and so are capable of seeing the past, present and future. And as it turns out, if you learn the language, you can also see through time! This is where the film veers furthest from reality, but it does allow for a very cool plot twist.

Arrival offers the best depiction of possible human-alien communication, but there is no knowing if this would even be possible. But even if it’s not, Arrival has an important lesson for humans. Throughout the film, members of the military both in the United States and around the world consistently threaten the alien pods. Banks is told if she can’t translate what they’re saying fast enough, they’ll be attacked. This isn’t an uncommon trope in sci-fi; humans are known to panic and attack as soon as aliens appear in many pieces of fiction. This trope takes on all the more significance in a film all about communication. 

As we’ve already mentioned, an inability to communicate can cause fear, and to paraphrase another famous sci-fi film, fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate (yes, it’s Star Wars). Three of the four films mentioned here are about humans attempting to exploit or attack the aliens, not the other way around, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We might not encounter aliens this year, this decade, this century or even this millennium, but it’s not a waste of time to consider what might happen if we do. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to go in with open minds to the wonders of the universe rather than opening fire on the horrors of the unknown.

Header Photo: Universal Studios

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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