New vs. Old Media: Arrival

Minor Spoilers to follow

Paramount Pictures

Denis Villeneuve’s film focusing on humanity’s first contact with an alien species brings up a lot of intriguing questions surrounding our perceptions of communication, and time. But beyond the science-fiction elements of the story, it brings about a very interesting perspective on the value of traditional media sources versus “new” avenues of media.

While taking a unique perspective to the “first contact” narrative, Arrival has a tried and true narrative structure in telling this story: broadcast news. Key moments in the film are more often than not introduced via broadcast news anchors exposition, and not by the characters centrally involved in the story. In Arrival’s world, this sets up the traditional broadcast media as wholly informative, even to U.S. Intelligence operatives.

While traditional media is seen as informative, New media is perceived as manipulative. Although only briefly seen (and in a stark allegory to the current media landscape), non-traditional media (in this case a live streaming, Infowars-ian conspiracy theorist) is presented in the film as the key actuator to resistance of the traditional media’s message, which leads to an unsubstantiated military action. For Arrival, communication mediums are simple: when you want to know, read traditional media; but if you want to feel, seek out newer avenues.

The one omission from this thesis is a glaring one in 2016: Citizen Journalism. As technology has grown, so has the ability for individuals who experience significant events to chronicle them from the scene, unobstructed by any producer or media agenda. One has to think that even within the secrecy Arrival’s main characters work within, someone would have live-streamed the 1,500 foot hight alien structure. Given the immense amount of influence media is given in this film, how would a citizen chronicling the alien arrival impact the journey of Arrival’s characters?

Overall, the picture of the media that Arrival paints is McLuhan-esque. Its not entirely about the individual’s thoughts around the messages they receive, but rather, by what medium they receive them.