This article contains mild Arrival spoilers.
This weekend, Arrival is headed with all the weight of one of its very own egg-shaped spaceships to the Oscar stage, eager to compete for Best Picture, Best Director, and more. Like the aliens in the film itself, Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama is keen on delivering audiences a gift, whether Academy voters recognize it or not, which if harnessed correctly could indeed be the very “weapon” that the film’s heptapod species writes about. For Arrival, and the Ted Chiang short story that inspired it, is here to remind audiences of an increasingly forgotten fact in Western life: intelligence, expertise, and even pure intellectualism are superpowers.
Traditionally, this form of insight should be considered trivial and obvious. The sophistication of the professional class, from scientists to historians, is what has allowed society to grow and generally better itself with each passing generation. Nevertheless, the landing of Arrival is harrowingly prescient for the weekend after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Here is a movie that celebrates the cunning and effectiveness of a few cooler heads working tirelessly toward the betterment of their planet. The ambitions of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor in linguistics, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist and mathematician, and even the often skeptical Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a military official constantly looking for what is the best policy and not what is the best political publicity in any given situation, are depicted as admirable, beneficial, and desperately needed.
In an age where blockbusters and mainstream wide releases frequently relegate the intellectual class to being “eggheads” and “elites,” often begging to be shown up by superheroes or cars that transform into giant CGI robots, such nuance is revelatory. It is also telling that despite being a sci-fi movie with an alien invasion and several box office-friendly Oscar nominees, the brainy Arrival must be thankful it opened with $24 million this weekend. For context, that was still several spots below Doctor Strange, a movie where a surgeon ultimately saves the world by giving up medicine and using magic to punch bad guys in another dimension; that movie, which is perfectly serviceable entertainment, earned $43 million in its second weekend.
Nevertheless, intelligent science fiction over the last several years seems to be fighting back against decades of cultural disdain for “experts” and “elites,” both in fiction or otherwise. Indeed, Arrival joins a growing list of films that includes Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015), all of which imagine a future where the innovations of science and “big picture” thinking are celebrated instead of derided.
A lifetime ago, science fiction had its first real cinematic heyday during the 1950s and early ‘60s. While the genre was still a long way from earning the respectability and prestige that would come with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there were plenty of classics, and many more not-classics, being cranked out to the delight of younger audiences. In this period, the “scientist” or “expert” was often an integral part to the formula.
While hardly the most interesting character on the screen, Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) is a critical force for good in Robert Wise’s seminal 1951 effort, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Bearing more than a faint similarity to Arrival, the alien known as Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to Earth to deliver a message that will hopefully unite us. Upon discovering the politics of the 1950s are messier than he thought, Klaatu ends up befriending a kid named Billy (Bobby Benson), and asks the young lad who is the greatest living person on Earth. Why that’s easy, the kid already knows the brilliant Professor Barnhardt is living down the street!
And Billy should know why: he lives in an era where, for better or worse, J. Robert Oppenheimer and a collection of scientists in Los Alamos were able to develop the atomic bomb, winning World War II for the U.S. in the Pacific without having to mount a mainland invasion in Japan, as well as changing the course of history. Less monstrous, though, was that while that film was being made, Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh was already on his way to developing a vaccination for polio, essentially curing a horrific virus that paralyzed children. And less than two decades after that, NASA would put a man on the moon.
But in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Barnhardt is simply the expert whom Klaatu can rely on getting his message out. When the politicians can’t look beyond the Cold War, the scientific community still gathers and observes Klaatu’s intergalactic offer: stop killing each other, or we will be forced to kill you in order stave off your nuclear proliferation in the space age.
Similarly, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) featured a psychiatric doctor (Kevin McCarthy) as its main character. He is one of the few sharp enough to figure out what is going on as aliens take over a small town, and much like Klaatu, he tries to shake us out of our complacency, warning us that if we don’t change our ways soon, an insidious alien invasion will create an extinction level event. Of course, we know what the chances are for humanity to start acting selflessly. Meanwhile, silly, lovable schlock like William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) even embraces the basic necessity for credible information by taking Vincent Price’s Dr. Warren Chapin at his word: in his scientific research, he has discovered a ghoulish parasite that attaches itself to humans’ spines, killing them unless they scream. And since he is an expert, you better start yelling right now, because a Tingler is loose in the movie house, so scream for your bloody life!
Admittedly, this repeated element is a trope, a cliché from a bygone era of genre storytelling. But it is important to contrast these sentiments with modern ones, because we live in a time when scientists who work at public universities and speak about vaccines aren’t considered miracle workers, but untrustworthy shills who are out to get hardworking people or the true supposed geniuses who realized after the ’80s that greed is good. This mindset is demonstrated repeatedly in our entertainment ever since the years of Ronald Reagan, where heroism in Hollywood cinema became synonymous with big muscles and guns (as opposed to now, where it is big muscles and capes). Any problem could be solved with some everyday grit, and by men in wife-beaters who feel uncomfortable at a Christmas Party where they serve champagne.
Granted, I love Die Hard (1988) as much as the next guy, but like nearly all action movies of its time, the “experts” on the TV are fools droning on callously about their fancy-pants theories of Stockholm Syndrome, as oblivious to reality in the film as the FBI agents who are too deluded and arrogant to realize that Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber isn’t a terrorist; he’s here to steal some money. They’re also smug and condescending, villainously indifferent to the life of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. The Feds don’t even care if a quarter of the hostages die, as long as they get their collar and headlines.
A decade after that, we end up with science fiction as unapologetically stupid as Armageddon (1998), a picture where nine out of every 10 NASA scientists are depicted as self-absorbed pencil-necks in need of a good wedgie; these pompous jerks can’t save the world even when they’re actually rocket scientists. Nay, leave that to all-American Bruce Willis, again in a wife-beater during his first scene, and a group of blue collar oil drillers who have as much disdain for these college-educated nerds as Michael Bay’s target audience. But don’t take my word for it; allow a stunningly candid Ben Affleck to pour gasoline on his own movie while burning the plot of Armageddon to ash in the below video.
For the record, things haven’t changed much when Michael Bay’s last blockbuster, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), features Mark Wahlberg as the ridiculously named Cade Yaeger, a salt of the earth Texan farmer/inventor with a Bostonian accent who saves the world alongside Optimus Prime. They’re only impeded and antagonized by a pretentious snob played by Stanley Tucci, an obnoxious know-it-all whose arrogance can be pinpointed by the glasses he wears.
This is what makes films like Arrival such a breath of fresh air. As with the NASA scientists and astronauts who make up most of the core casts in both Interstellar and The Martian, Adams’ Louise is a hardworking expert whose knowledge saves lives and benefits the military, as opposed to getting in their way. As a linguistics professor, she is uniquely qualified for communicating with the aliens, and reaching a level of understanding that surpasses the classic Hollywood impulse to blow them up.
Throughout the film, Louise and Ian are characters whose interests in language and math cross-pollinate, helping the U.S. government—as well as our allies and rivals, from the UK to China—better understand why the aliens are here. And rather than being a supporting character who masters communicating with the aliens in one scene, thereby making room for Will Smith, Tom Cruise, or Mark Wahlberg to then “save” the day while wearing a relatable baseball cap, Louise and Ian are the core of the story. Their own decades of life and learning give everyone else the chance to make informed choices, as opposed to hastily stupid ones.
Conversely, the entire modern media landscape is condemned, as cable news bemoans the fact that it’s been 48 hours, and the White House hasn’t yet explained why the aliens are here. While the talking heads wring their hands, Louise is only just reaching the space egg hovering over Montana. Subsequently, as the 24-hour news cycle spins out of control, it becomes evident that a major breakthrough on the ground is a day when we learn simply to say hello to the aliens. In contrast, media echo chambers boil over in full frenzy with nothing to talk about but speculation.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of our society in Arrival is the depiction of talk radio motor-mouths urging for war and violence without even comprehending what they are blabbing about. A Rush Limbaugh/Alex Jones type is depicted in the film as inciting vulnerable listeners to believe that the best course of action is to ignore the supposed progress of the elites, and to blow right past Louise and Ian while doing something incredibly ignorant.
If one wishes to dismiss as fantasy these parallels to the cults of personality percolating right-wing bubbles, consider that as these loud, angry, and ignorant voices—exactly like the ones in Arrival—have grown, so has a dangerous distrust of basic facts. There is now vehement hatred for who Affleck described as the “nerdo-nauts” at NASA in his own 1998 asteroid movie.
With the democratization of news exploding across the internet and social media in the 21st century, a general paranoia is becoming ubiquitous. Throwing around words like “elite” and “globalist” has become an excuse to drink deeply from the anti-intellectual forces of every political persuasion within the U.S. and abroad. In Britain, Michael Grove, a Tory member of Parliament and loud voice on the “Vote Leave” movement, helped successfully campaign for the Brexit by whining, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” A supporter joined in the chorus during the lead-up to the Brexit vote by sneering on radio, “Experts built the Titanic.”
In the U.S., President-elect Donald Trump successfully campaigned on a platform that largely relied on Know Nothing doublespeak. When even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly critiqued Trump to his face for spreading misinformation and phony statistics online by retweeting a lie that vilified African-Americans, Trump’s meager defense was “it came out of radio shows and other things.” So of course, how could you judge a presidential candidate for not bothering to look up actual facts when someone tweets him misinformation? Much less the rogue terrorist who also listens to “radio shows and other things” in Arrival.
On the flipside, such bizzaro rationalizations can occur amongst self-satisfied and “highly educated” folks who also have an unhealthy skepticism for those who disagree with them. Look no further than the return of measles, a contagious virus declared eliminated in the United States as of 2000, yet in 2015 saw an outbreak that spread to nearly 200 children thanks to the popular anti-vaccination movement, which is led by celebrities who insist vaccinations cause autism, despite CDC reports to the contrary.
Eventually, the cynical distrust of vaccinations, scientific research, and accurate New York Times representation of the president-elect’s previous stance on nuclear weapons proliferation, leads to moments as comically surreal and Kubrickian as the sight of Sen. Jim Inhofe, the current chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, attempting to discredit the “eggheads” by tossing a snowball across the Senate floor on a cold winter day in 2015. By proving that it still snows in February, the highest ranking senator overseeing U.S. legislation dealing with climate change thinks he disproved 97 percent of the scientific community.
Meanwhile, the UN just announced that 2016 will now be the hottest year on record, snatching the record away from 2015. Also, 16 of the 17 hottest years have occurred consecutively since 2000. And the problem with facts like these is that they are nonpartisan.
So yes, movies like Arrival, Interstellar, and The Martian addressing these issues in our pop culture are more relevant than ever. After decades of Hollywood acquiescence to the idea that we should ignore the eggheads, we live in an era where snowballs are in the Senate and reality TV stars are in the White House. Of these three films, the most fantastic seems to be The Martian, which, in addition to imagining that NASA will have launched three successful voyages to Mars within the next 20 years, depicts the entire world as emulating and obsessing over the efforts of a botanist who “sciences the shit” out of being stranded on Mars, and who is saved by the international cooperation of the unimpeded, smartest men and women on the planet.
Arrival and Interstellar are a bit more cynical. The former includes the aforementioned brainwashing effect of right-wing media, and the second literalizes the genuine give-and-take between these two elements in our culture, with the college educated Muprh Cooper (Jessica Chastain) compelled to aid the escape of her brother Tom’s (Casey Affleck) family after he refuses to listen to the science, ignoring that staying on his farm and not changing his habits will lead to his son’s death. One acts out of logic, the other out of fear, and by the end of the third act, the brother has a weapon-in-hand, possibly contemplating using it against his sister, who is only trying to help his family survive the worsening effects of an inhospitable climate.
Fortunately, the efforts of Murph and her absent father who is living in her childhood bookcase (it’s complicated) prevent actual violence from occurring, and instead lead to a scientist once again saving her fellow man, beginning with her brother by way of a conversation. Perhaps like Murph and Tom, and Louise Banks and the alien heptapods she meets, we could all learn something from communication, listening to researched facts instead of reaching for the proverbial weapon.
This article was previously published on Nov. 14, 2016.