A few days ago, Hedda and I watched the recent sci-fi drama Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whittaker. The story has been echoing in my imagination ever since. What a joy it was to see a film that engages with “otherness” with such intelligence and depth of feeling.
At the heart of the film (without spoilers) is the challenge to communicate with a species whose minds and language are structured in such fundamentally different ways that they support an entirely different kind of consciousness and understanding of the physical universe.
It also seemed significant that we watched it on International Women’s Day because it’s a female character – linguist Dr Louise Banks, played brilliantly by Amy Adams – who cracks the code of the aliens’ language and solves the mystery of their appearance on Earth.
Ultimately the film is about the difficulties and the possibilities of connecting across difference. Fear is never far beneath the surface but we see that it does not have to prevail. Arrival is about as far from the ludicrous, war-mongering triumphalism of Independence Day as it is possible to get.
Like all great science fiction, the film speaks to real contemporary dilemmas. Fear of otherness, fanned by right-wing extremists and neo-Fascists in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere is perhaps the greatest threat we face to a humane and civilised way of life.
Building walls to keep us separate from others is easy but it preys on our fears and makes us smaller. Building bridges to connect with others nourishes our hopes and helps us grow; it calls for compassion, courage and magnanimity.
Thank you to the makers of Arrival for reminding us that we are capable of more than “kicking some serious alien ass.”