On the Timely ARRIVAL – Xenophobia And The Fear Of The Unknown

How hope can help bring us together.

Arrival is finally out (you can buy your tickets here)! In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty ugly time to be a citizen of the world right now. Precedents put in place by Roe v. Wade are being threatened, climate change is at stake, and hate crimes are running rampant, with angry people everywhere targeting women and people of color, and anyone else who doesn’t fit into President-elect Donald Trump’s ideal notion of Aryan brotherhood. At a time like this, it’s easy to be blindsided by the hatred and lose hope for the future. However, just as director Denis Villeneuve has proven with his latest sci-fi thriller Arrival, overcoming the anxieties of xenophobia and a fear of the unknown is possible. If we can just learn to put aside our differences and come together to work for the greater good, we can ensure the survival of humanity as we know it.

Prejudice and history might have you believe different, but the fact is, at the end of the day, there is only one race – the human race. That’s what Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her assistant Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) will learn when they are plucked from an ordinary existence by the United States government to set up a system of communication between humans and their new special visitors, extra terrestrials from outer space. It seems so surreal, seeing the news capture the glare from the giant, strange shiny vessels, but somehow it’s really happening, and now it’s up to people everywhere to figure out what these aliens want, and why they are here.

Do they want to hurt us? Do they want to be friendly? Do they want war? And how are we ever going to learn to interact with one another, when we come from such vastly different backgrounds, know nothing about each other, and are unable to communicate? These are the questions presented in Arrival, as well as many sci-fi fantasy movies about alien invasions, and more often than not, their introduction into the world ends in battle and bloodshed and a fight to the death. One side will prevail and the other will be extinguished, but it’s necessary, right? No way around it? Director Villeneuve suggests a different route. It may be confusing and frustrating at first, but inevitably, the path to cooperation between races is lined with patience, understanding, inclusion, and a slow but steady gaining of knowledge about each party’s language.

Language shapes the way we see the world, and it is only when we open ourselves up to a different mode of thinking that introductions can be made and progress accounted for. In the film, which was adapted from the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Dr. Banks is a top linguist in her field, but even she is baffled by the floating, tentacle bearing aliens, who come to be known as the heptapods, and their use of spoken and written dialogue. Whereas the English language is a straight forward stringing together of words and syllables, where each line is meaningful and indicative of what the person is trying to get across, the heptapods dialect is a bit messier. The Heptapod A is their spoken language, and the Heptapod B is their written language. The two do not actually go together. What the aliens speak at any given moment isn’t necessarily the message that they mean to convey. It’s a radical notion, to people who are used to their Western way of thinking, but once Dr. Banks and Donnelly begin to break down the spherical symbols these aliens write down in the air like floating ink blots, they begin to understand the aliens’ purpose for flocking to their country, and realize that although they may seem frightening at first, they do not wish to harm us, but instead, actually might want to offer a way to help us.

When presented with outsiders, humans tend to fall back on fear and paranoia, a.k.a. the most simplistic conclusions achieved through blanket statements and easily categorized theories. In a very smart and deeply metaphorical way, the scenario set by Arrival isn’t that different from the state of the world we’re living in today. Xenophobia and a fear of the unknown have blocked people's path to understanding, and they have instead settled for hate. After all, why try to learn a language different from your own, interpret a culture different from your own, and change your approach to thinking about the universe, when it’s so much easier to stick to what you’ve always known and oppose anything or anyone different from yourself? The answer is love. Love will always trump hate, and it will always prevail, even if it takes a little longer for some individuals’ hearts to reach out to their fellow man and grab the hand that so desperately seeks their acceptance.

Villeneuve has created a brilliant social commentary on the current state of international relations, except in his movie, instead of Americans dealing with foreign relations from another nation, they’re dealing with an influx of an extra-terrestrial species. Everyone wants to jump to fighting, it seems. Everyone is so ready to set off bombs and rain down a stream of gunfire and get rid of their strange new friends whom they do not understand and therefore do not feel comfortable around. However, through weeks and weeks of hard work and research and day-to-day baby steps of progress through communication, Dr. Banks begins to realize more and more that these aliens aren’t guilty of anything, except wanting to make allies of the human race. We may be lost in translation for the moment, but the power of language can and will connect us. It’s not as easy a road to take as hate, but anything worth having is worth fighting for, and that definitely includes the compassion and support of those who are different from us.

In the movie, as time dwindles on, armed forces around the globe begin to lost their patience and fall to accusations about the aliens’ intentions. Dr. Banks insists she’s close to striking up a fully realized method of communication, but her progress is abruptly halted when an interaction indicating the world “tool” gets misconstrued as the word “weapon”. She can’t be sure quite yet, and everyone is worried and hurt and tired of waiting. They’re ready to drop bombs and play the war drums and devise ambush tactics. But fighting isn’t the answer. The only solution is love and empathy, and, hopefully, unanimity.

The joy of connection is an overwhelmingly blissful thing. Mob mentality and lynch tactics can never achieve the same high as collective effervescence. A new and healthy relationship always feels better than filling one’s heart with hate. Looking at the state of America’s affairs at the moment, it may seem impossible for many of us to rise above our narrow-mindedness, but as this thoughtful little sci-fi film shows, it is always possible to overcome diversity for the sake of a greater good.

Arrival is not only an important movie because it sparks a discussion that feels more necessary than ever, but it also provides a sense of hope in a time where it feels like all light in the world is being snuffed out by hate. It shows us how it will take the threat of an outside force, or a new, conspiracy-crazed leader with massive weapons of destruction at his disposal, to inevitably bring the world together as one solid unit – but we WILL be brought together. If we, as the only race, the human race, can set aside what divides us in order to better ourselves as one whole group of people, we can survive the dark times ahead, find hope for unity in the face of terror, overcome our oppressor, and in the end, be better humans for it.