Talking With Extraterrestrials: The Importance of Language In Alien Cinema

If aliens ever do arrive, we'd better learn how to talk to them.

Arrival finally hits theaters this week (you can buy your tickets here). In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

There’s a common expression that says the most important aspect of any relationship is communication. Whether it be the love of our life or little green men from another world, the very core of maintaining and growing any relationship is how we discuss and interpret our wants and needs. Denis Villeneuve’s newest flick, Arrival, focuses on a linguist (Amy Adams), who is recruited by the military to translate and decipher the language being used by an alien species. It’s peculiar to see an alien film finally focus on language and communication, given that it is frequently the most important aspect of alien cinema.

Star Trek introduced us to the language, Klingon, which is arguably the most famous of any fictional alien language. Created by Marc Okrand, Klingon (or Klingoneese) is an iconic language, but an incredibly difficult one to master, with only 20-30 people capable of communicating the language fluently despite over 300,000 copies of The Klingon Dictionary sold. Although fictional, the Klingon language is a perfect allegory for how the human race has often communicated with alien species. Minimal effort, with very few mastering the art of it. If only 20-30 people have mastered the language with 300,000+ others failing, what messages could we be missing or misunderstanding from the Klingon species?

The cherished story of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial showcased the importance of language not only to an alien, but to the human attempting to communicate with it. Throughout E.T. we’re shown an alien that has highly advanced telekinetic powers of the mind. E.T. could make objects levitate, revive plans, and link himself to his caretaker, Elliott with the power of his mind. Yet when we think of the most iconic moments of the film, you’d be hard pressed not to immediately think of “E.T. Phone. Home” or “I’ll be right here,” as the moments that force all of your childhood feels out of your eyeballs. E.T. can make his point without saying a word. His use of the English language isn’t for his own benefit; it’s a way for him to communicate with the human that took care of him, a way to prove to Elliott that their connection was important and true.

If we needed any further proof that language is the most powerful tool in dealing with aliens, look no further than Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! After military forces and high-powered weaponry fail to destroy the big-brained Ack! Ack!-ing invaders taking over the world, it’s discovered that exposing the aliens to Slim Whitman’s yodeling “Indian Love Call” causes their heads to explode. While campy and over-the-top in nature, this is the ultimate metaphor for “brains over brawn” and that talking out problems is more effective than violence.