One of the most acclaimed movies of the year, Arrival, had a release that roughly coincided with the election of Donald Trump. It’s a seemingly odd juxtaposition: a pensive, elegant movie about language and peace alongside a thoughtless vulgarian who thrives on violent rhetoric.
But what if, just as the alien language within Arrival takes time to decipher, so does the movie's deeper message? Perhaps Arrival and the President-elect are more similar than they initially appear.
The movie’s plot is simple: Louise Banks, a linguist, is called upon to decipher an alien language as the world’s superpowers, threatened by this otherworldly “arrival,” fret and prepare for war. As she works, Dr. Banks battles a succession of uncomprehending military and government types.
According to Anna North, “Dr. Banks manages to save the world using a low-tech yet highly complex technique: talking… Her planet-saving skill rests on her ability to communicate with aliens and people who can’t understand one another.” This is the conventional wisdom surrounding Arrival: empathy diminishes our propensity for violence.
But the way in which violence is avoided in the movie in fact has nothing to do with empathy. Once Dr. Banks learns the alien language, her mind is able to transcend time and space. It is this ability that ultimately allows her to convince others to resist violence. Without this psychic talent, Dr. Banks would fail to prevent the apocalypse. That North and so many others call this “empathy” does not make it so.
While conflating empathy with clairvoyance is questionable, there is nothing horribly wrong with reminding people of its importance, even in a distorted way. But once it becomes clear that Arrival does not actually demonstrate the power of empathy, its more problematic message becomes apparent.
Arrival has a deus ex machina structure: what saves the world is fully outside of us — a wisdom that is apparently without any flaws of its own, while offering us incredible solutions to that which most threatens us.
Arrival does not look on the surface like an argument for authoritarianism. But on a deeper level it suggests that submission to a wise leader can save us. It elides the question of how empathy might be fostered on a diverse and warring planet, and in so doing undercuts its putative message. The snake oil it’s selling goes down easier than Trump’s — but that doesn’t make it any more true.