Imagine this: strange spacecraft, under alien command, hover in the sky in strategic locations around the globe. Little is known of their intent. National governments and international organizations struggle to determine what comes next. They marshal equipment, military hardware and a bevy of top researchers to scientifically analyze everything that can be known about the new arrivals, and prepare for a potential attack.
This is the plot of the blockbuster movie Arrival, directed by acclaimed Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and recently nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay (spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie, now may be the time to skip down to the final paragraph). Among the many twists that wind their way through the course of this two-hour epic, one is perhaps most surprising of all: the world is saved from the alien invaders, but hardly as a result of the technological marvels of advanced science. Rather, it is thanks in part to insights provided by humanities research, and specifically the work of a dedicated linguistics professor.
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