Denis Villeneuve (dir), Bradford Young (cin), Eric Heisserer (wri)
Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma (cast)
Based on “Story of Your Life”by Ted Chiang
September 1, 2016 (Venice Film Festival), November 11, 2016 (United States)
This review contains spoilers for the film.
Arrival’s Best Picture nomination places it within a small contingent of sci-fi films that have been deemed Oscar-worthy. Based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the film explores the individual and global consequences of first contact with stunning visual detail. The most memorable shots emphasize the personal; there is a particular depth given to Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) home and the wilderness surrounding it, as well as to the inside of the alien craft that lands in Montana.
A similar narrative emphasis is given to the intimate effect that contact with aliens has on Louise’s own life. Her individual arc, with its non-linear sequencing and narration, is poignant, introspective, and, at times, understandably grieving. It raises questions about the ethical implications of knowing the future, of motherhood, and of communication and connection between parent and child. By contrast, the broader consequences of first contact are sparse. In relatively vague terms, global upheaval — then unity — stem from the appearance of twelve alien (called “heptopods”) space crafts across the world.
Arrival does not suffer for this ambiguity in large part because it hinges on familiar cultural mythologies about the world stage (particularly Russia and China) and the U.S.’s domineering role within it. What is curious, however, are the ways in which those long-enduring cultural narratives have shifted just within the few months following Arrival’s release.
As in any mythology, the characters in Arrival serve particular functions. Within the broader context of the film, Louise represents, among other things, an ideal of global citizenship. In many ways, she reads as a social scientist’s power fantasy; through empathy and a staunch adherence to cultural relativism, she is given the heptopods’ “weapon” of understanding: a proficient knowledge of their language and values, and the subsequent acquisition of their non-linear perception of time. It is with these weapons that Louise is able to achieve global unity. Interestingly, Louise’s role carries with it the same implications associated with many fields within the social sciences; historically, certain sub-disciplines — like anthropology, the ideals of which Louise incorporates in her work — have played a key role in ventures of western imperialism, particularly when employed by government or military figures in wartime settings. Within the tense international backdrop of Arrival, Louise as a linguist continues to operate in this role.
Although the heptopods’ crafts land in several different countries, the primary emphasis is placed on the U.S., China, and Russia, and their different approaches in contacting the aliens. It is not unusual for sci-fi as a genre to paint Russia, China, or analogues to either country as the natural antagonist (see: 1984, Blade Runner, Star Trek, to name a few); in the same fashion, Arrival relies on western viewers’ assumptions about these countries in order to make sense of its setting. While all three countries perceive first contact as a threat, it is China and Russia that are displayed as the most militaristic in their treatment of the heptopods. Chinese officials communicate with their heptopods via mahjong rather than through a formally recognized written or verbal language, the effect of which, Louise comments, is to inherently place both parties in competition with each other. General Shang, China’s military leader, is the first to declare war on the heptopods and is only persuaded against military action by knowledge Louise acquires through the use of her “weapon.” Russia and China are additionally depicted as relying heavily on isolationist foreign policy; though all affected countries initially work together in order to share information about the heptopods, they are the first countries to disconnect from their shared communication channel.
In this way, the film creates an implicit hierarchy of statehood. The U.S. and its citizens are, in accordance with American cultural narratives that have thrived for decades, depicted largely as responding to the potential crisis with rationality and proper moral positioning, bringing stability in the form of globalized cooperation to heal fractured international ties. Aggressive military action, isolationism, and nationalism, as well as the countries that embody these qualities, are deemed threatening and undesirable, despite that each of these terms could accurately describe the reality of American foreign and domestic policy over time.
To further underscore this hierarchy, Arrival employs a plot point concerning American extremists who call for and carry out violence against the heptopods. The implication is that those Americans who sanction violent nationalism comprise a small fraction of the nation. The heptopods themselves function as symbols for any number of cross-cultural dynamics, including immigrants, refugees, and colonial subjects. In combination with the extremist subplot, this symbolism takes on an ironic tone post-election, when the U.S. under the Trump administration is openly engaging in acts of brutal nationalism at multiple levels. Arrival relies on mythologies of American exceptionalism and moral and cultural superiority that, while never accurate, have been dramatically displaced in our present sociopolitical climate.
While the film does not present itself as necessarily predictive, it assumes China and Russia as global antagonists, xenophobic extremists within the U.S. as an unenlightened fringe group, and America itself as a level-headed model to the rest of the world. Within the universe of Arrival, peace is achievable through understanding and listening to representatives of other cultures, a fact which is tinged with neoliberal overtones. Countries are joined as a globalized whole, presumably organized around the U.S. and its values as portrayed in the film, which assumes that such an outcome or method of organization is universally desirable.
The greatest irony lies in the fact that Trump and his supporters blatantly embody all the characteristics that Arrival condemns in other countries. Whether or not these characteristics are negative is not in dispute so much as the inconsistency with which the film’s hierarchical judgments are applied. Arrival then seems to depend on a universe in which Clinton had won the 2016 election. Certainly, it upholds the same cultural narrative that a Clinton administration would likely have continued to perpetuate.
Though the film resolves in part with an optimistic vision of global unity, this resolution carries with it an imperialistic idealism that centers the U.S. as the standard to which other countries must bend. While this overarching trope is reflective of a euphemistic view on American foreign policy, it is also now arguably irrelevant. Of the myriad effects of the Trump administration, the persistent narrative of the U.S. as global savior has perhaps been finally rendered immaterial.