Playing the Non-Zero Sum Game — The Politics of Arrival.

Caroline McEvoy
Sep 5, 2018 · 6 min read

Arrival is more than a film about language. It’s a movie about international politics.

Note: This article discusses plot points from the movie Arrival. Spoilers ahead!

For a movie about first contact with an alien life form, Arrival is surprisingly short on inter-galactic relations. Unlike the aliens in the War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the Heptapods (named on account of them having seven feet) aren’t hell bent on blowing up New York and taking out the human race for ‘reasons’. Nor are they ET like cuddle monsters, wishing for nothing more than to leave again. These extra-terrestrial visitors park their ships at twelve locations around the globe and spend the next ninety minutes playing celestial charades with teams of humans who are trying to figure out what the hell they came for. For the most part, the Heptapods don’t do much at all. Not that it matters, because like so many sci-fi thrillers that came before it, Arrival is not a movie about aliens but, rather, an investigation into the nature of our humanity.

Take, for example, a scene late in the movie when Hannah, daughter of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), asks her mother the technical term for a win-win. At first, Louise can’t remember the word but then recalls Hannah’s father, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) using it — a non-zero sum game.

It’s a penny dropping moment for the audience who realise they haven’t been watching Louise’s memories of her daughter at all but seeing precognitive thoughts of the child she will one day have with Ian. As a linguist, Louise is brought in to communicate with the Heptapods but as she learns their language her relationship with time starts to change.

At its heart then, Arrival is an allegory for human communication and our relationship with language (much has already been made of the film’s reference to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). But the scene with Louise and her daughter is also a direct nod to game theory and points to the film’s, far less discussed, political theme — in the face of a crisis, is conflict inevitable?

Interpreting the rules of the game

It’s a question central to international relations and Arrival answers it by following a theory of global politics that developed in the late eighties known as constructivism. The basic idea is that politics between states is socially constructed and not the inevitable consequence of human behaviour or the result of an essential feature of state relations. Whether states see each other as friends or foes depends on how we choose to approach and interpret that relationship. If the rules of the international game are zero-sum it’s because, somewhere along the line, we have decided that they are so. That the Soviet Union was, at one time, the enemy of the United States and yet now Putin is extended an invitation to the White House, is as much a product of the collective meanings we place upon our actions as it is about the structure of international power politics. In his 1992 article “Anarchy is what States Make of it” Alexander Wendt explains the central idea like this:

“Would we assume, a priori, that we were about to be attacked if we are ever contacted by members of an alien civilisation? I think not. We would be highly alert, of course, but whether we placed our military forces on alert or launched an attack would depend on how we interpreted the import of their first gesture for our security-if only to avoid making an immediate enemy out of what may be a dangerous adversary. The possibility of error, in other words, does not force us to act on the assumption that the aliens are threatening: action depends on the probabilities we assign, and these are in key part a function of what the aliens do; prior to their gesture, we have no systemic basis for assigning probabilities. If their first gesture is to appear with a thousand spaceships and destroy New York, we will define the situation as threatening and respond accordingly. But if they appear with one spaceship, saying what seems to be “we come in peace,” we will feel “reassured” and will probably respond with a gesture intended to reassure them, even if this gesture is not necessarily interpreted by them as such.” (Wendt, P405).

This hypothetical scenario is exactly what Arrival presents us with. The Heptapods appear as a blank slate, neither threatening nor overly welcoming, and it’s how the human characters interpret what the aliens do and say that drives the interaction. As Wendt notes, the possibility for miscalculation is extremely high and so state leaders must proceed with caution. We can see this in a scene where Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) tries to understand Louise’s work methods with the Heptapods. He says “everything you do in there I have to explain to a room full of men whose first and last question is how can this be used against us?” The military are ready to attack if necessary but aren’t making any sudden movements. Its to the films credit that it shows different states trying, at least at first, to work collectively, sharing information from their respective base camps to learn what the aliens want. There are no moustache twirling political villains here, only bureaucratic actors trying to navigate their way through a global crisis. Even General Chang, the Chinese leader who comes closest to declaring war on the Heptapods, is eventually convinced to put the guns aside.

The limits of zero-sum

If Louise represents a constructivist understanding of world politics, the military and state leaders reflect a different viewpoint, one political scholars call realism. The great grandpappy of modern realism, Kenneth Waltz, argued that states exist in a world of perpetual anarchy where they are forced, by necessity, to prize their own security above everything else. States simply cannot trust each other act honourably and, since no one wants to be the sucker, every country has an incentive to increase their own power in order to protect themselves. When states are faced with a much greater power (like an alien race that has mastered inter-galactic space travel) they are left with two choices — put aside their differences with other states and act collectively to oppose the greater force or throw their neighbours under the bus and welcome their insect overloads (a concept Waltz called bandwagoning).

Arrival rejects this way of thinking, arguing that hostility is not an inevitable consequence of international order but a choice that we make, one that might sometimes be justified but can just as easily lead to catastrophic consequences. At one point, Louise translates the aliens words as saying ‘offer weapon’. This drives several state leaders into a panic and they start preparing for war of the worlds. However, Louise and Ian point out that ‘weapon’ could mean ‘tool’. The aliens might be offering some sort of military assistance or even be asking for our help. Without further information, ‘weapon’ is threatening only if we interpret it as such and act on the assumption that they are hostile. Unfortunately, the outside world seems to do exactly this. Throughout the film we get glimpses of how the public react to the arrival of the ships. Lobby groups warn against a potential biological threat, people riot in the streets, law and order starts to break down and both the mainstream media and the Alex Jones type rabble-rousers stoke the flames of fear in the face of the uncertain. Negative assumptions about the Heptapods’ motivations culminates in two soldiers taking it upon themselves to plant a bomb in one of ships making for a potentially apocalyptic first strike against the unknown visitors.

Politically, Arrival drives home the point that if we act like the world is a zero-sum game then that is all we will ever get to play because we aren’t open to the possibility that the actions of others could have positive intent. Sometimes the alien will be Predator and sometimes they will be Superman but we do ourselves a disservice if we assume they are either before learning to hear what they are actually saying. More often than not, we can reach a win-win and maybe gain a time-bending language as part of the bargain.

Caroline McEvoy

Written by

Political Scientist. Writer. Researcher. Lecturer. Cinematic Overthinker. Book Devourer. twitter: @carolineamcevoy

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