“I couldn’t tell if the actual movie would be mostly science fiction or mostly a love story.” says Stephen Wolfram (the creator of Mathematica) who along with his son has a consulting role in the movie.
I have seen the movie twice and cannot make up my mind either or indeed if it is more about a third topic - about communication between humans and with aliens.
The lead character played by Amy Adams is a linguist. We learn early on she is familiar with Portuguese, Farsi, Sanskrit and the movie weaves in trivia like Urdu is written from right to left.
So, what does that have to do with STEM?
To start with the movie is adapted from Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang. In linguistics, it's known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, “or as Chiang puts it in the film's production notes "the idea that the language you speak determines how you perceive the world and even what kinds of thoughts you can have." It may even determine how your brain is wired. (As an aside, it is incredible that a short story has been adapted into such a visually dense movie, and with other references to Fermat’s Principle of Least Time and Bayes’ Theorem excised so the movie did not confuse the audience even more.)
And then there is the logogram language of the aliens. As Wired reports “The aliens regard time as non-linear, and the language needed to reflect that. But consultations with linguists and graphic designers kept leading to fictional alphabets that Vermette says hewed too closely to familiar systems like hieroglyphics, or code. It felt too human. Then one night, Vermette’s wife, artist Martine Bertrand, offered to sketch some ideas. The next morning, Vermette came downstairs to find 15 inky logograms on the kitchen table. “I said, ‘eureka.'””
Finally, here is repeated use of 12 – the symbol of cosmic order, as in 12 signs of the Zodiac, 12 year cycle in Asia. 12 spaceships show up in the movie, and there is science which tries to decode their landing sites. Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist uses gobs of computing power to analyze the alien logos into 12 sectors.
The non-linear time dimension in the movie is tough to get your head around. Very few of the alien logograms are actually translated into English sub-titles in the movie. Finally, bringing out the human elements which actually dominate the movie, pose an interesting challenge. As Jeremy Renner explains
“How I deal with, like, zeroes and ones, and [makes a sound like a chattering computer, or maybe an old dot matrix printer] and all these really unemotional, scientific things? How do we make this guy a human?”
It is a fascinating movie. Go see it – maybe 2-3 times to finally get your head and heart around all the nuances.