DENIS Villeneuve's new film Arrival features a linguist as one of its main characters: not a fictionalised one, like a token forensic expert or a Henry Higgins, but a field linguist who is portrayed realistically by Amy Adams, down to the details of her office.

Showing at City Screen, York, from today, the movie brings up some interesting questions about language: Would there be any similarities between our languages and the language of a biologically and culturally fundamentally different species? Could languages evolve similarly on different planets? How would we go about making sense of a language when we have so little in common with its speakers? And how would we approach a language that is neither spoken nor signed, like the languages we know already?

With these questions in mind, City Screen will play host to a question-and-answer session on Sunday at 5pm that will give you a chance to discuss the film with three professional linguists from the University of York: Dr Márton Sóskuthy (language change and evolution), Dr Ann Taylor (sentence structure and language change) and Dr Richard Ogden (phonetics and sign languages).

In Arrival, when 12 alien spacecraft enter Earth’s atmosphere and hang sentinel over the planet, workaholic linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead government attempts to communicate. Working with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she seeks the answer to one very simple question: what do they want?

As the team begin to grasp the complex language of their interstellar guests, they realise they must race against the doomsday clock of growing global paranoia to discover the truth.

Villeneuve’s portrayal of first contact has less to do with aliens than it does with humankind’s reaction to them. Arrival looks at what makes us human, joining the ranks of ambitious films such as Interstellar and The Martian in bringing gravitas to the big-screen sci-fi genre.

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