Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. – Roger Ebert
Arrival is the first movie I watched after the election. I saw it alone on Thursday night at the Regal in Times’ Square in a large theater with few other people, as I have done nearly every week of my adult life. Going to the movies almost felt inappropriate, even disrespectful, after the decision we made on Tuesday. What relevance does a big budget prestige sci-fi flick have after we inflicted upon ourselves the nation’s greatest tragedy since 9/11? By what right am I seeking the pleasure and escape of cinema when my friends and neighborhoods justifiably fear for their families, jobs and lives? Put simply, who the fuck cares about movies at a time like this?
Director Denis Villeneuve had no way of knowing that his movie would hit theaters two days after a deranged hateful megalomaniac became the president-elect. However, Arrival is the perfect film for this point in history and a searing argument for not only film’s relevance but its essential nature.
Arrival stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist and university professor. The movie opens shortly after twelve large alien spacecrafts descend to Earth to hover above twelve seemingly unrelated locations across the globe. Nothing emerges from the ships and whatever is inside the ships, if anything, makes no immediate effort to contact mankind.
However, Banks soon learns that some governments have in fact contacted the aliens (a label she hesitates to use) when she is recruited by Colonel Weber (played with a brilliant subtlety by Forest Whitaker). Weber requests that Banks learn and translate the alien language – an otherworldly series of droning and breathy moans. She is partnered with Ian Donnelly (the ever competent Jeremy Renner), who represents the sciences, while Banks represents language, the building block of civilization as told by her.
Thus the driving dramatic tension of this alien invasion movie is not the struggle to defeat our invaders and send them but home but is instead the struggle to communicate with them. The film has essentially no violence and little physical action. Rather the arch of the narrative follows Banks and Donnelly as they work indefatigably to decipher a language and alphabet that presents as notes and scribbles.
By eschewing the traditional action-based trappings of sci-fi, Arrival has space to craft a beautiful and elegant parable preaching hope and togetherness. The film teaches that not only are communication and language the key to overcoming fear and xenophobia but overcoming the barriers to true connection will literally save lives.
In this film the greatest tragedies occur when communication ends and the worst possible outcome is violence. Compare that to the more traditional sci-fi action narrative where the winner is simply the side which wages war better than the other. Here, as hokey as it sounds, we all win when we all learn to simply talk to each other.
Roger Ebert famously said that movies are machines that generate empathy. I have been thinking about that line a lot over the last week as someone who loves and cares about film and suddenly finds himself living in a time tragically dangerously low on empathy. When face with the virulent hate and bigotry that the administration-to-be wields the easy reaction is to set the arts aside, return to them at a more appropriate moment, but I feel that is the wrong choice.
Our art, our culture not only has the power to bring us together by offering pathways to new perspectives and unlived lives but it also defines who we are. Our art – especially our popular art, such as cinema – is our statement of purpose and values as a people and a society. It defines us and reflects us.
Now, at this time which feels like a nadir of civilization and decency, is precisely when we should be going to the movies. This is why we have art, to bring us together and turn us toward the good.
Arrival features a light twist which is not revealed in a single moment but rather dawns on each member of the audience in different ways at different times offering each of us an individual experience toward the same destination. In this same way we must each work our way through the days, months and years ahead. How we cope best is determined by the individual but, for Villenueva, what is important is that we arrive at the same place, together, talking. We can save lives.