Films reflect a human way of thinking because they are made by humans. Most humans think in terms of narrative. People experience the world by telling themselves stories: characters, locations, and linear actions. Everyone is a storyteller in their own mind. Some filmmakers, particularly those making science-fiction, attempt to provide a broader perspective on human thought by creating characters that think degrees differently than a person. To the best of their human abilities, filmmakers draw comparisons between humanity and beings that experience the Universe through instinct, emotion, or even time. On film, these abstract thinking creatures are alien to humans: either an enigmatic terrestrial consciousness or an actual extraterrestrial life form. Filmmakers attempt to occupy the minds of deep sea critters and deep space entities.
However, film, as a human invention with an explicitly narrative function, is not well suited to portraying the dissimilar thoughts of an alien. Filmmakers do their best to show though behavior what an alien intellect is thinking. Still, any interpretation is made by a human audience. In many of these films, conflict in the story is derived from people making incorrect assumptions about these thoughts. Human characters see a different thought process and impose a blank slate. They project human thoughts and desires onto animals and artificial life forms, attempting to over-empathize with a being one does not truly understand.
To more clearly explain the intent of their characters, filmmakers include a translator to speak for the alien entity -- to create an understanding for a human audience. These translators do not deal with matters of language, like C-3PO telling a story to Ewoks. They remove interpretation by stating the facts of an alien mind (typically by being psychic). Filmmakers cannot communicate an experience too distant from humanity, so translator characters bridge the gap.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's work, humanoid Hobbit characters Peregrin "Pippin" Took and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck encounter a translator character in the Fangorn Forest. Upon fleeing from their captors, Pippin and Merry encounter a talking tree with a beard made of moss. This bearded tree is aptly named Treebeard. He is the longest surviving Tree Ent, a shepherd of trees and protector of the Fangorn Forest. He speaks for the trees (like the Lorax). Fortunately for the Hobbits, Treebeard has experience as a liaison between humanoid beings and trees. Trees think differently than any of the other denizens of Middle Earth, including Uruk-hai, talking eagles, dragons, and ghosts.
Pippin and Merry attempt to convince Treebeard of the neccessity of attacking Saruman's army at Isengard, but an intellectual barrier proves to be a problem. The Hobbits convince Treebeard by showing him the ecological destruction caused by bipedal species, but the rest of the Ents and trees are harder to coerce. Treebeard approaches the Ent council and pleads their case. As the Ents deliberate, Treebeard acts as a translator for the Hobbits and warns about the difference in thought processes. The tree-like Ents think deliberately, speak slowly, and take action over eons. Pippin and Merry try to project their own way of thinking on the Ents, but the Ents refuse their request. The trees eventually go to war when called by Treebeard. As a translator and mediator, Treebeard states directly what the trees are thinking for the Hobbits and the audience: not much.
Being a member of an unfamiliar species is one way a character can understand and translate a dissimilar mind to the audience. More common ways for characters to share experiences are an emotional bond or a psychic link. In the television series Farscape, the primary setting is aboard a living, biomechanical starship named Moya. She is a Leviathan, basically a space whale with interior architecture and life support suited for humanoid habitation. Communications with a space whale prove difficult, and Moya has a symbiotic relationship with Pilot, an alien that calms Moya and runs her ship operations. Pilot also has the ability to interact with humanoids. Moya's inhabitants -- John Crichton, Aeryn Sun, other humanoids, and assorted puppets -- interact with Moya through Pilot. Pilot understands Moya's emotions and coaxes her into traveling to certain destinations.
Moya has a mind of her own that Pilot barely comprehends and is limited in translating. Pilot as a translator character sometimes fails to bridge the mental differences between Moya and her inhabitants. On any given occassion, John Crichton, Aeryn Sun, or Ka D'Argo issue orders to Moya as if she is a fully mechanical ship that responds to humanoid whims. They impose their thoughts on Moya with little success -- even with the best of inentions. Moya is rebellious and frequently follows her own motives. Unlike the deliberate thoughts of the Ents, Moya's thoughts are chaotic and emotional. In the episode "They've Got a Secret," Moya even tries to kill all of the humanoids inside of her. Ostensibly, she turns homicidal to protect her unborn child (or finally gets tired of the constant bickering of her passengers). Pilot figures out the differences of opinion and thought and emphasizes that he is a translator and not a handler. He does not control Moya; he feels for her.
The inhabitants of Moya and the audience attempt to understand her in humanoid terms, species specific thoughts and emotions. The scope of Moya's galaxy traversing existence is far grander than any projected empathy by humanoids. Pilot acts as the translator that bridges understanding, while frequently getting in trouble for his effort.
The Star Trek franchise is also acquainted with all manner of space traveling life form: from coherent gas cloud to extra dimensional creatures. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Galaxy's Child," the Enterprise crew accidentally kills a space creature, must perform an emergency Caesarian birth using phaser fire as a scalpel, and wean the newborn calf from suckling on the ship's engines. There is a lack of communication between the humanoid crew of the Enterprise and these space creatures. Much of the interaction is based on interpretation, guessing, and projecting emotion. This leads to difficulties in the encounter.
In another, earlier encounter, the Enterprise utilizes a psychic translator to connect with the mind of a large space creature. In the season three Next Generation episode "Tin Man," Starfleet dispatches ultra-psychic Betazoid Tam Elbrun to join the Enterprise and make contact with a Moya-like sentient starship, nicknamed Tin Man. The Enterprise is to warn Tin Man or otherwise move the ship from a star system in danger of going Supernova. As a driving motivation, two Romulan Warbirds are en route to capture Tin Man. The Enterprise competes to make contact with Tin Man first.
Tam Elbrun serves as the emotional translator on the mission. He puts into words what Tin Man is feeling. To the audience, Tin Man is an expressionless pine cone. Any compassion or emotion going to or coming from the space creature goes through Tam. The translator connects with Tin Man and explains that the ancient starship (named Gomtuu by his initial crew) is burdened with feelings of guilt over accidentally killing its inhabitants.Furthermore, it feels loneliness at having no companions. Tin Man wants to die in the Supernova. Tam transports to the living ship and makes a deeper psychic connection. The two come to identify with each other. As the star bursts, Tin Man saves the Enterprise and disappears with Tam into the swirling plasma of a Supernova.
Tam Elbrun breaks through the barriers of assumption by the humanoid crews of the Enterprise and Romulan Warbirds. The Enterprise crew treats Tin Man/Gomtuu as a beached whale: a pathetic creature deserving of sympathy or over empathy. The crews also treat Tin Man as a prize to be seized. Tin Man finds this perspective fairly patronizing and tries to communicate its loneliness through his translator. In the end, the Enterprise crew understands why Tin Man does what he does, and Tam fulfills his role as mediator of thoughts.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is yet another Star Trek story with whales (terrestrial this time) requiring an emotional translator. In the film, a vastly powerful intelligence sends a space probe to Earth. Starfleet fails to make contact with the probe, which looks like a spitball suspended beneath a cigar. No linguistic system is capable of understanding the probe because its sender's intellect is very different than any species in the United Federation of Planets. Unfortunately, the probe's transmissions and scans are so powerful that they drain power from starships and star bases. Doubly unfortunate, the probe's attempts at communication ionizes Earth's oceans and threatens to boil the entirety of the planet.
Admiral James Kirk and his crew, thinking differently, determine that the probe is communicating through the whale song of a species extinct in the 23rd Century: humpback whales. Spock points out to a bewildered Doctor McCoy that "there are other forms of intelligence on Earth" and that "only human arrogance would assume the message is meant for Man." Kirk resolves to travel back in time to the late 20th Century and invite a mating pair of humpback whales to come with him to the future. He hopes that the whales will wave off the unintentionally destructive probe. He and his crew travel back to San Francisco in the year 1986 and find a pair of humpback whales at the Cetacean Institute at Sausalito.
Spock serves as the translator for the humpback whales, named George and Gracie. Spock engages in a Vulcan mind meld and informs the whales of the plight of Earth in the future. He connects directly to the whale's minds in order to communicate on their thought level. Spock speaks for future Earth but also translates the whale's thoughts for the audience. The whales are willing to help.
Also at the institute is whale biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor. She believes that she speaks for the whales. Dr. Taylor falls into the human trap of projecting her emotions onto the whales, over empathizing with them while ignoring their own intellects and motives. She forces her understanding on the whales. When she confronts Spock on his mind meld, she does not believe Kirk's claim of attempting to help. She replies, "The hell you were," and refers to the whales as her own. Spock retorts, "They like you very much, but they are not 'the hell' your whales." Spock explains that the whales are in need of protection but not emotional ownership.
In the end, Spock clears up all misunderstanding between man and whale, allowing the whales to save the future of mankind. The whales give an eloquent speech on a variety of topics to the probe (in whale song), convincing the probe to depart Earth. 23rd Century humans rediscover the humanity that they lost when the humpback whale was hunted to extinction. Spock reconnects with his human half. Admiral Kirk has a bargaining chip to use during his trial over stealing and detonating the Starship Enterprise. Audiences get a glimpse into how director Leonard Nimoy thinks that whales think.
Sometimes, filmmakers allow the translator to fail at his or her position to emphasize the difference in intelligence form between the audience and alien characters. In the series five Doctor Who reboot episode "The Beast Below," the Doctor and his traveling companion Amy Pond find themselves on Starship UK. The colony vessel contains the remnants of a Great Britain fleeing a devastated Earth. The ship is also peculiar in that it has no engines. After some thorough investigation in the literal bowels of the ship, the Doctor discovers that the ship is built on the back of an enslaved Star Whale. All adult citizens of the starship vote on whether or not to keep the Star Whale enslaved, surviving indefinitely, or free it, possibly ensuring the destruction of the colony.
The Doctor takes up the cause of the space whale, claiming to be the translator of the whale's thoughts. He decides to lobotomize the whale that he assumes is suffering. As he rigs the captivity equipment to kill the whale, Amy Pond second guesses the Doctor and frees the whale. Everyone fears that they are soon to be killed by a vengeful Star Whale. Everyone is proven wrong in their assumptions. The Doctor and Amy realize that their own projected emotion blinds them to the truth about the whale. The space creature is an ancient intellect that thinks differently than either the humans or the Time Lord Doctor. The space whale has an immense capacity for forgiveness and empathy. Plus, the space whale really likes children. Luckily, the situation resolves itself positively overall.
Writer Steven Moffat uses the mistranslation of the Star Whale's intent to prove that misidentifying or placing unwarranted pathos on another intellect is dangerous (until the end of the episode).
Not all mistranslations by translator characters end so beneficially. In the American edits of the Gamera films, hulking turtle monster Gamera receives the moniker "friend to all children." The writers and performers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 make fun of this moniker because Gamera is known for destroying large portions of Japanese cities, probably killing thousands of children in the chaos. In Gamera, a child empathizes with the giant turtle, acting as his translator. The child communicates the intent of Gamera, or at least what he thinks Gamera means by crushing buildings. In a host segment on MST3K, Mike Nelson appears as Gamera doing his laundry. Nelson as Gamera explains that people called him monster until he found a child to cheer for him. He states that he can crush as many cities as he wants as long as he has a child on his shoulders. He is not a Destroyer as long as he has a child acting as a mis-translator and cheerleader. Gamera is free to crush and kill all he pleases because he is really likes children (like the Star Whale).
An extension of the child used as poor translator of alien intellects comes from The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror XI." In the third segment, "Night of the Dolphins," written by Carolyne Omine, little girl Lisa Simpson finds a dolphin at a marine park that is in distress. The dolphin, named Snorky, is abused by park visitors. Lisa empathizes with the dolphin. She believes that she knows what Snorky is thinking and frees him in a parody of Free Willy. Her assumptions and projections onto the dolphin are proven wrong. Snorky is a ruler in the dolphin kingdom. He returns with an army of dolphins and conquers the town of Springfield. The dolphins hold a grudge against humanity for forcing them to live in the ocean. In turn, the dolphins force the humans of Springfield to live out in the ocean.
Lisa Simpson is not a stranger to misinterpreting the intentions of alien creatures. In the very first "Treehouse of Horror" episode, she suspects that she is in a real life version of the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man." The Simpson family is taken aboard a spaceship by Rigelians. They are treated well: allowed to play Pong and served banquets. Lisa feels that the situation is too perfect. She takes it upon herself to translate the intentions of their hosts. Lisa accuses the Rigelians of attempting to fatten the Simpsons for slaughter and consumption. Her assumption and projected fears are proven wrong, again. The Rigelians are insulted. Serak the Preparer cries. The Rigelians explain that the gulf between their intellect is apparently too great. Kang, one of the Rigelians, explains the differences in thought by explaining that the Simpsons would have "experienced emotions a hundred times greater than what you call love and a thousand times greater than what you call fun."
The presumed innocence and purity of children is used by filmmakers to make a point about mistranslation. A child's "purity" is suggested to give the child a preternatural connection to alien intellects. As Gamera and Lisa Simpson show, this cultural assumption is not always true.
The 2011 film Super 8 makes this point about mistranslation in a more ambiguous way. In Super 8, eleven year old Joe Lamb (as innocent a character can be named without being named Frank Innocent) encounters an alien on the loose in his Ohio hometown. This alien is the survivor of a spaceship crash and spends decades in captivity under rogue Air Force Colonel Nelec. Upon escaping, the alien attempts to reconstruct a spaceship to return home, under constant pursuit by military forces. The alien also finds humans delicious and captures some to snack on during the flight home.
Young Joe Lamb unravels the mystery of the alien by recovering documents left by his science teacher. The recordings left by the science teacher act as the primary translator of the alien's mind. Unlike other alien visitors, like E.T. or ALF, this alien does not learn basic English. The science teacher makes a psychic connection with the alien through physical contact. The alien's mind is so different that it can communicate the breadth of its life experience in seconds. The science teacher feels the alien's mind and understands the pain of the alien. The alien also understands the threat posed by humans.
Learning this information, Joe Lamb attempts to rescue his friend from becoming the alien's lunch. Joe infiltrates the alien's subterranean lair, but the alien corners Joe and friends in an tunnel. Joe makes psychic contact with the alien and communicates his life story. Joe has pain in his past (losing his mother). It is Joe's emotional scars instead of purity as a child that allows him to accurately translate for the alien. The alien realizes that its assumptions and projections of fear onto humanity are wrong. It decides to leave Earth without killing anyone else (possibly to return with an invasion fleet).
Super 8 presents the inverse of interactions between humans and alien minds. Whereas many films tell the story of humans overcoming assumption to translate alien intention, Super 8 tells the story of an alien overcoming its assumptions to translate human intention and forgive. Either that, or the alien is "pulling a Gamera" and using a child for his own purposes in eating people and then escaping Earth (by using Joe's memories to locate the missing pieces of his spaceship).
Filmmakers use alien intellects to compare humanity to an external benchmark. These filmmakers, being human, push the limits of their creativity to create an alien intellect. As different as this alien intellect may be, the medium of film makes communicating this difference difficult. As such, a character needs to translate for the humans in the audience. Various lessons are depicted and translated on different levels about assumption and empathy. The translator character serves as the exposition that identifies the amorphous, expanding boundaries of humanity. Filmmakers tell stories about translators because they bridge understanding between differences, whether between humans and aliens or humans and other humans.