As is common each year for a close group of friends and I, we have begun our theater tour of all the films generating Oscar buzz. It’s a ritual we enjoy. We view good films, drink beer, and have excellent conversation regarding the films we see.
This past week, we saw Arrival, a science fiction film which is certainly more about humans than aliens. In short, Arrival centers on a series of alien vessels which have landed throughout various locations on Earth. Two experts on language, played by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, are brought onboard to make this first contact communicable.
What makes Arrival special is not the typical effects of mainstream science fiction. Not one part of this film takes place in space. There is no epic battle. There is little action.
Arrival is a film about humanity – specifically about our fears and how healthy communication is achieved through effort, and not necessarily with ease. After a long and contentious election season, Arrival oddly serves as a commentary on our political commentary (let’s see how meta we can make this).
When the military brings the linguists in to attempt communication with the aliens, they want the question of “why are you on Earth?” answered. Yet embedded within this question is the deeper concern, a question of fear: are you going to harm us?
In perhaps one the films less-than-subtle moments, the first time Adams’ character “meets” the aliens, lovingly named Albert and Costello, is behind a wall representing communication barrier. We humans communicate vocally and with letters; Albert and Costello with smoke circles containing the most delicate differences.
Patience is key for the linguists. In a scene in which a military general questions the methodology of the linguists, it is shown that each seemingly simply word can become confused in a plethora of ways. The first steps of communication are delicate. Even the simplest of mistakes could lead to profound miscommunication.
The essence of Arrival is that communication is art. This particular form of art is not easily achieved. Proper communication that meets the needs of both parties takes time and an abundance of patience. It’s a patience we in our current time often do not exhibit.
Arrival made the communication between alien and human seem simple compared to the communication between political parties. The vastness of the divide between Democrat and Republican seems insurmountable at times. Buzz words are thrown around that make attempts at understanding come to a grinding halt. Accusations are lobbied. Sound bites are divine. And in the midst, our community crumbles because we have forgotten how to communicate.
In the week since Donald Trump was elected president, I’ve noticed two common trends online. The first is the continuation of the long election season – a series of left versus right rhetoric that is so embedded in anger and fear that all is lost in chaotic yelling. The other trend is a call for unity. While admirable, this trend is quick to forget the harm done, and the violence promised, by certain political candidates. Unity cannot be reached if we do not first recognize how to proceed forward. And in order for that to occur, we must communicate better.
The mystery behind Arrival is what the aliens want. Their presence, their purpose is left unknown throughout the majority of the film. The military takes the skeptical (and perhaps pragmatic) route of assuming the worst in the alien visitors. Fear is the underlying motivation. I cannot help but think that so much of the political rhetoric, and election choices, are decided in fear. Fear has the capacity to bring out the worst in people. It can reduce us to our most ugly state. It can compel us to destroy, to threaten, to kill.
In contrast to the military, the linguists in the film strive for something more optimistic. They want to understand why the aliens are here as well, however, the methodological approach to basic communication demonstrates not only patience, but respect. There didn’t seem to be a moment in the film where the aliens were thought of as lesser than humans simply because humanity did not understand their language. The playing field was equal – the task of both human and alien was the same: communicate. The degradation of the alien would hinder attempts of communication.
The language barrier that existed and that was subsequently broken down in Arrival is very much thriving in our own human conditions. We’ve allowed the worst in each of us, and in each other, to come out this election season. Continuing the yelling will not suffice. It will only lead us further into this rather deep hole we’ve found ourselves in. Yet in the endeavor to unity, we must learn to communicate more effectively. This is neither idealistic or unrealistic. It’s possible. But in that pursuit we must likewise acknowledge and confess our wrongdoings of each other in this last year and a half. Communication is moot without an honest confession of how we’ve deeply hurt each other.
I understand many are still processing the results of this election. I know I sure am. I cannot imagine a world such as the one Trump wants to create. But in order to take action against this, we must work together in a practical and united front. That begins with how we communicate.