The following contains mild spoilers for Arrival.
It’s no coincidence that the wave of science fiction films that emerged in the 1950s rode on a tide of post-war anxiety. The advent of the atom bomb, the Cold War, renewed fears of Communist incursion: these were just some of the fears that emerged as World War II shuddered to a close. And as the ’40s tipped over into the ’50s, those fears began to play out in movies: giant atomic monsters tore apart cities in the US and Japan. Alien invaders arrived in their saucers, raining down great waves of death and destruction. Other invasions were more insidious: the aliens looked like us, lived among us, even controlled us from within.
Not all sci-fi movies of the 1950s looked to the sky in terror, however. In 1951, a flying saucer touched down on a baseball field in Washington, and as a door elegantly swished open and a strange figure emerged, it looked as though America might be in for another violent incursion from outer space. But The Day The Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise, ran counter to most of the sci-fi movies of its decade. The strange figure turned out to be a benign visitor named Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien messenger with a dire warning for the human race: if it spreads its capacity for violence to other planets, then Earth will have to face the consequences.
In other words, Earth is like a crazed renegade state that as somehow got its hands on a nuclear missile – and the civilizations on other planets are aghast. Now, this anti-war message was less than a fashionable one at the time; producer Julian Blaustein freely admitted that The Day The Earth Stood Still was intended to promote the idea of stronger ties between nations – an unpopular notion for a period where the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a frantic arms race.
The Day The Earth Stood Still is an example of what the most intelligent examples of science fiction can do: as well as entertainment, it provides a voice of reason. Just as HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds served as a pointed, thinly-veiled critique of the British Empire in the 19th century, so The Day The Earth Stood Still dared to suggest that our greatest threat comes not from a mysterious Other – whether they be from overseas or outer space – but from our own distrustful, violent and self-destructive tendencies.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Arrival is this year’s The Day The Earth Stood Still: a movie that stands in opposition to the prevailing mood in 2016, and also provides a welcome antidote to a media landscape of fear and distrust.
Like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Arrival sees a series of alien craft descend into Earth’s atmosphere: they hang in the sky, smooth as pebbles. Are they harmless or are they weapons of war? Are their occupants invaders or benign? That ambiguity triggers a new kind of Cold War, as military agencies around the globe train their crosshairs on the alien ships. As tensions mount, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is ushered in to find out what – if anything – can be learned from these mysterious visitors.
As adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is many things at once: a thriller, a romance and a meditative drama about memory, perception and motherhood. Together with Denis Villeneuve’s quietly sure-handed direction, the story shifts effortlessly between moments of otherworldly fear, Spielbergian awe and outright sadness; that the film can encapsulate so many ideas and tones is all part of its richness. But viewed in light of recent events, Arrival also offers an impassioned message of hope.
In its opening half an hour, Arrival introduces a chasm that seems impossible to cross. When Banks boards one of the alien craft, she sees the occupants’ octopus-like form and, later, their impenetrable written language: a circular tangle of intersecting lines. The difference between their species and ours, it seems, is so vast that there can never be any understanding. And in the film’s fractious climate, there’s the possibility that a single piece of miscommunication could pitch the world headlong into an unwinnable conflict.
Still, Banks persists, her innate curiosity and intelligence pushing her, along with mathematician sidekick Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to pick apart the aliens’ arcane writing. Bit by bit, the code is broken, until Banks realizes that the aliens’ way of communicating is bound up in their perception of the universe. Ultimately, Banks not only succeeds in forging a bond between species, but also realises that understanding the aliens’ language could alter our own way of thinking for the better.
It’s worth comparing the extraordinary scenes between Banks and the aliens and a similar moment in 1996’s Independence Day. In the latter, we see US president Thomas J Whitmore (Bill Pullman) stand in front of a bug-eyed alien, which wavers threateningly inside a smoke-filled chamber.
“I know there is much we can learn from each other,” the President says. “If we can negotiate a truce, we can find a way to co-exist. Can there be a peace between us?”
“Peace?” the alien hisses. “No peace. “
“What is it you want us to do?” the President asks.
“Die,” says the alien.
Independence Day retreads the same ground as Earth Vs The Flying Saucers or a legion other ’50s invasion movies: the alien as a faceless aggressor that won’t stop until it’s destroyed. There can be no diplomacy, no common ground – but at least we can enjoy watching Earth’s armies kicking the aliens’ backsides. Arrival, by contrast, suggests that there can be an understanding between species, if only we persist in finding the commonalities between them.
You only have to turn on the news to see that, in 2016, division and uncertainty is just about everywhere. The threat of terrorism, economic uncertainty and deep political rifts are common headline news. Old rivalries between east and west also appear to be reopening, this time thanks to the spectre of cyberwarfare.
It’s a climate that causes one country to look at another with suspicion; that directs cynicism and resentment from the masses to those in power; that leaves people who speak different languages dehumanised and alienated.
Arrival serves as a timely counterpoint to all that. Like Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, Amy Adams’ Louise Banks symbolises all that’s good about humanity: incisiveness, warmth, empathy. It’s these qualities that help bridge the divide, creating unity out of confrontation and hope out of fear. These are themes that co-star Jeremy Renner agrees are readily found in the movie.
“There’s a lot of ties with [the political climate],” Renner nodded when we spoke to him in October. “That’s my takeaway from the movie – not so much the politics of things, but what unites us and divides us as a species, as humans. The beauty of when things align, which is pretty rare […] and what happens when we divide. The huge terror and fear that come up because of that.”
Just as The Day The Earth Stood Still encapsulated the climate of a world apparently racing towards nuclear destruction, so Arrival slots into a 21st century era riven by uncertainty.
By forging bonds rather than breaking them, Arrival seems to say, we can reach a better understanding, and collectively, evolve into a better species. By listening rather than yelling, by learning rather than fighting, we can all move forward. We can all be better.