Arrival: First Contact as Cultural Encounter

By Brandon Irvine

Arrival’s premise, though fairly original as far as movies go, is so intuitively appealing that you would guess it must be derivative: Twelve alien ships have just shown up on Earth, scattered around the globe, and governments around the world are rushing to figure out why they’re here. Our protagonist is Louise, an academic linguist enlisted by the military to communicate with who- or what-ever is in the enormous pod suspended over a field in Montana.

Like many other great sci-fi movies of the past couple of decades, Arrival works well in largely because it’s equal parts sci-fi and adult drama, tying the two together inextricably. In this case, Louise carries a deep personal loss – not much of a spoiler since it’s the prologue to the film – and the movie traces the evolution of how she relates to that loss. Superficially, the movie of the past twenty years that Arrival most strongly resembles is Contact, which used Jodie Foster’s meeting with an advanced alien civilization as a cathartic moment that released her from the pain of losing her father. In practice, however, Arrival evokes Inception, whose dream infiltrations literally pulled the audience into the mind of a tortured Leonardo DiCaprio. The conceit of shared dreaming in Inception wasn’t just a cheap way to liven up a pot-boiler, so much as the very point of the movie; as Christopher Nolan has so amply demonstrated, you can make a sci-fi plot serve characters’ psychological journeys, and Arrival also succeeds in doing just that.

Like Nolan, director Dennis Villeneuve succeeds in Arrival in part because he is confident enough to build suspense without rushing through the story for fear of boring us. Shots are sustained and the camera movement restricted, so tensions have time to mount and emotions have time to unfold. Like Villeneuve’s recent Sicario and Prisoners, the pace makes a moving drama out of conventional material.

Beyond the obvious emotional and aesthetic appeal, though, Arrival resonates in ways that are easy to miss. For one, the film manages to use alien contact to evoke the experience of encountering other cultures. It’s a motif whose appeal seems obvious in retrospect, but in a preponderance of movies where aliens appear, they are either exotic cannon fodder or vicious monsters. Only a smattering of Hollywood products actually depict the first meet-and-greet with the representatives of an alien civilization, chief among them Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You could creatively slot in some more (2001: A Space Odyssey is name-checked often in reviews of Arrival), but few care about the implications of first contact or our need to grapple with the significance of another civilization, one that may not share our values or priorities.

This maps exceptionally well to the experience of meeting other cultures, a point certainly not lost on Villeneuve. At their best, these encounters — both with aliens and with other cultures — give each side a broader view of what it means to be human and ways to exist in the universe. It’s no accident that Arrival hints at international tensions and political priorities even in the face of extraterrestrial contact, and the suspense surrounding humanity’s ability to cooperate interculturally echoes the anxieties about whether the aliens are here to destroy or befriend us.

Of course, if history is a guide, War of the Worlds or the like might be a realistic expectation of what aliens would be up to on Earth. But as a speculative fiction, Arrival offers an optimistic vision of both inter-species and intercultural understanding, growing in stages: Confusion and even fear, followed by sympathy and appreciation, which eventually leads to acceptance, trust, and possibly love. The movie itself is an act of hope, presenting us with a reminder of the unimaginable shapes that life and emotion can take and the belief that we are capable of embracing them. Arrival’s extraterrestrials might be from outside our solar system, but they can still broaden Louise’s understanding of what it means to be a human here on Earth.




Brandon Irvine reads and watches with purpose and sometimes blogs at
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