This week, as the air waves were being dominated by politics and world issues, I went to see Arrival. This is hardly Hollywood’s first stab at the depiction of friendly (as opposed to scary) aliens. I think back to 1977’s Steven Spielberg hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which Richard Dreyfuss is welcomed aboard a craft piloted by extraterrestrials. Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis shot Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays a SETI scientist chosen to interact with mysterious beings visiting from outer space. Two more decades have passed, and (in some political circles, at least) aliens are now interlopers of a different kind. But Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, goes back to some classic assumptions: that the creatures making contact seek communication rather than warfare and that it’s a sensitive but brainy woman who’s best capable of knowing what to do and say.
We’re now in, it should be noted, an era when women are being recognized for their STEM expertise, at least on the movie screen. We’ve had gutsy, heroic female astronauts in both Gravity and The Martian. The recent Hidden Figures is dedicated to three real-life African American women whose mathematical gifts made possible the U.S. manned space program. In Arrival, star Amy Adams is not exactly a scientist or engineer. Instead she’s a high-powered linguist who (in the word of her sidekick character, the physicist played by Jeremy Renner) thinks like a mathematician. And she’s the one American capable of deciphering the exotic written messages being sent her way by two unearthly beings code-named Abbott and Costello.
Arrival is based on an award-winning 1998 short science fiction tale by Ted Chiang, titled “Story of Your Life.”. I haven’t read Chiang’s work, but I’m told it’s a densely packed philosophical musing on the role of time and causality, because the extraterrestrial heptapod creatures studied by Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, have no sense of past, present, and future. Perhaps that’s why the throughline of the film version has me so confused. It’s clear enough from the film’s many memory flashes that Louise is suffering from the loss of her young daughter to a terrible illness..(Frankly, there’s something all too obligatory about the fact that all the STEM-superior young women in movies like Arrival and Gravity are compensating for the loss of a child.) But while watching Arrival I didn’t grasp what the movie was trying to say about basic chronology as a purely human construct. And I now suspect that the film critics I started reading after the lights came up understood better than I did because they had Chiang’s story to clue them in.
I needed no help, though, in understanding the film’s geopolitical messaging. It seems that alien visitations are simultaneously taking place in twelve locales spread throughout the world, including such unlikely outposts as Venezuela. At the U.S. site, located in rural Montana, scientists like Louise are closely monitored by Pentagon brass, but still manage to conduct their probes in a humanistic way. China and Russia, however, quickly move toward a militaristic posture, convinced as they are that the outer space invaders mean war. Louise becomes our only hope for convincing the nations of the world to work together peaceably for the sake of understanding and learning from the extraterrestrial visitors. It’s nice to see our heroine as a spokeswoman for peaceful coexistence. But this week some of us may be wondering – at a time when nationalism and xenophobia seem to be rapidly mounting around the globe – whether a worldwide push for peace can ever really be possible.