America Should See ARRIVAL This Weekend

Denis Villeneuve's paean to understanding is the movie we need right now.

 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.

“I will not be afraid because I understand...and understanding is happiness.” - Arthur C. Clarke, Rama Revealed

Every so often a movie comes along just at the right time. A movie that, seemingly by coincidence, encapsulates the moment’s prevailing mood, or provides a tonic to its worries. A movie that, while produced over a lengthy schedule, feels made for the now, and demonstrates the importance of cinema as either a reflection or influencer of society.

Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, out this week, is one of those movies. Though it’s been sold as an alien invasion thriller (and in a vague sense, it is?), it’s really a thoughtful sci-fi movie about communication. The film nods towards it constantly - the unwillingness of nations to share information; literal inaudible dialogue; and of course, the alien translation project that drives the story. Even the editing plays upon the audience’s understanding of language - in this case, the language of cinema itself. Arrival doesn’t just create compelling drama out of linguistic analysis; it tells a story about the importance of understanding on a deeper level. Oh yeah: and its protagonist is a smart, capable woman.

How many alien invasion movies would end differently if the aliens and humans had talked to each other? It’s human nature to judge too quickly, to leap to conclusions, or to fear what we don’t understand. It’s easy to distrust, and hard to forge a new connection. But Arrival stresses that bridging cultural divides is crucial - even when the differences are so profound as to seem incomprehensible or even frightening. Sometimes understanding others requires a fundamental change in the way we think, but it’s worth it, as Arrival magnificently demonstrates. Take that extra effort to reach somebody, and the benefits can be manifold. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to apply these ideas to people of colour, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ people, or yes, Muslims. Even though I'm probably preaching to the choir here, everyone's got somebody they could stand to appreciate better.

Which brings me to the timing of this release: with a dangerous, xenophobic charlatan ascending to the highest office in the land, as if by some demonically preordained script, now is precisely the right moment for a film like Arrival. Trumpism deals in and preys upon non-understanding. It stokes fires of panic and uncertainty around any culture that deviates from an antiquated norm. Make no mistake: what we are seeing now is a move toward an autocratic state where hatred is the law of the land. What our new overlord desires most is for people to stop listening to each other, and to stop speaking the truth. Chaos and revenge are his stock in trade, and empathy and community his Kryptonite.

There’s a point midway through Arrival where events careen sickeningly towards military conflict. The world’s governments’ primary question to the aliens concerns their purpose on earth, motivated by fear they came for a fight. Inevitably, some move to attack the aliens, just as others attack those who live different lifestyles, wear different clothing, hold different beliefs, or simply look different. But life, as Arrival retorts, is not a zero-sum game. Survival of one group doesn’t require the annihilation of another, as Trumpists would have you believe. Communication, says the film, should always be the first weapon drawn in any conflict. There is always hope as long as we are able - and willing - to talk.

Some might say Arrival is outdated, an unrealistically optimistic view of humanity now that Godwin's Law has finally become a sickening reality. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the Star Trek: The Next Generation version of this story. But it’s also exactly the movie we need right now: an aspirational film about the importance of sitting down and hashing things out. So damn it, go see Arrival this weekend.

But don’t stop there. Arrival’s a great movie, but it won’t solve anything on its own. Take its lessons to heart. Talk to your friends. Talk to your family. Talk to the people in your day to day life - especially the marginalised or disenfranchised - whose cultures or experiences you might not share, and listen to what they have to say. Introduce people to one another who might not ordinarily meet. Talk about important things. Talk about trivia. Find common ground. Stand up for the people Trumpism would have you despise. Create good days to offset the bad. If you're angry (and you should be), funnel your anger into constructive action. It is only through understanding that we can transcend our own experiences, expand our horizons, and move forward.

And hey, if all else fails, at least you saw a great work of modern cinema before the blacklist began.