A few weeks ago, I sat down with my buddy Christian Thorne and my delightful wife Dalena Storm to watch “Arrival” (2016). We discussed the movie afterwards and Christian encouraged me to write up my first impressions, so this is meant to be a light post in which I interrogate a movie for its implicit politics. Basically, the kind of thing I say about a movie after a few beers (sorry I’m a total critical theory nerd). Warning: Spoilers.
For all the buzz about the philosophy of language in “Arrival,” the film’s politics have been little discussed. Part of this might be because they are hard to parse. I see this as due to the fact that most “first contact” Science Fiction can be sorted into three different master themes—alien invasion, space ethnography, or stellar revelation—and while “Arrival” is closest to the third, it actually passes through all three. So in what follows I’ll map out the latent politics of different sub-genres of first-contact science fiction and then use that to explore the film’s political unconscious.
If you are curious, follow me over the fold…
The “alien invasion” is a classic science fiction trope. Its premise is simple: extraterrestrials appear and try to conquer planet Earth. The two main versions of this trope differ according to the aliens’ strategy—sometimes they are attempt military occupation outright and sometimes they secretly subvert the existing political order, but either way, the story is basically the same.
The thing to note about alien invasion stories is that they often, but not always, function as “auto-invasion,” by which I mean that space invaders are often a way for European and American authors to imagine what it would be like to experience the brunt of European or American conquest. Sound farfetched? Let me provide a couple examples.
Ask most scholars about the prototypical account of alien invasion and they’ll likely point to H.G. Wells’, The War of the Worlds (1898). In this case, the novel’s politics are on the surface. In the opening chapter the narrator explains:
“And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? “
In this respect, the aliens symbolize the British Empire, while Europe nearly suffers the fate of the Tasmanians and other indigenous peoples. Basically, The War of the Worlds envisions the British suffering under the brunt of British imperialism, and turns to aliens to enact this. Accordingly, alien invasion as auto-invasion often takes on a kind of postcolonial or anti-colonial politics.
Wells is not exceptional. Tales about conquest by technologically advanced aliens places the reader in the place of the colonized or the subjugated. Let me give you another easily defended example.
In the original “V” television miniseries (1983) a group of human-seeming aliens called “The Visitors” appear over the UN building in New York City and gradually begin to take over the world by enticing world leaders with advanced technology. Initially, they seem to be an example of a friendly occupation. SPOILER: they turn out to be lizard people. What you might not know is that series creator, Kenneth Johnson had originally pitched a project titled Storm Warnings (inspired by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here) in which Johnson explored a right-wing fascist takeover of America. Apparently, NBC found the premise too politically controversial to appear in the early years of the Reagan Administration, and American fascists were allegorically transmuted into lizard people. But the theme of auto-invasion stands—V explored America under far-right American political domination. [i]
The second most common type of “first contact” sci-fi is space ethnography. In this type of tale, humans are portrayed as quasi-anthropologists encountering primitive civilizations and then worrying about what to do with them. By way of examples, Ursula Le Guin, one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors and the daughter of the famous American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, wrote several novels that basically functioned as futuristic ethnographies, in which their protagonists explored more technologically primitive civilizations and reacted to the indigenous people’s cultures. The most celebrated of these—The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—was basically Nanook of the North meets a more radical Coming of Age in Samoa in space. But probably the most famous example of this type is the original Star Trek as a metaphor for the so-called Age of Discovery with Captain Kirk as a futuristic equivalent of Captain Cook with a United Nations mandate.
The politics of space ethnographies vary from interventionist to anti-imperial, but they often present the moral challenges of empire from an imperial perspective (e.g. the Star Trek controversies about the Prime Directive as debates about whether the US should intervene in other countries’ civil wars). Some versions explore the competing rivalries between different empires (say, Federation vs Romulan) and their impact on colonized worlds or subjugated peoples. But my main point is that depending on how the tale treats this conflict, it can either serve to covertly justify or criticize empire.
The final variation on first contact sci-fi is what I’ll call stellar revelation. This type of sci-fi explores a message or alien messenger(s) from the heavens. The aliens are often depicted with significantly advanced technology and god-like powers. They have something that they want to communicate to the earth if only their message can be received properly. Narratives of this type often explore notions of belief and doubt (was it really a message from intelligent aliens? Or just noise?) and sometimes they focus on a single believer who, like a Jewish prophet or Christian saint, is assumed into heaven. This type of first contact film deploys themes drawn from Jewish/Christian theologies and has generally had its greatest resonances with contemporary UFO oriented new religious movements (like the Raëlians).
This narrative pattern is exemplified in films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Communion,” (1989), and “Contact” (1997). Close Encounters was originally based on a script that Steven Spielberg wrote contrasting “belief in UFOs with the public’s loss of faith in the American political system.” [ii] Spielberg’s interest in exploring political conspiracies dropped out as real life events (Watergate) undermined confidence in the government. But the final product still explored notions of religious mania and parallels between belief in divine (or angelic) contact and UFO encounters. This one also ended in the protagonist’s ascension into an alien heaven. Spielberg even went so far as to depict famous ufologists Jacques Vallée and J. Allen Hynek.[iii]
Communion is based on the “non-fiction” book by Whitley Strieber who described his own experiences of being contacted by extraterrestrial visitors and the spiritual visions that this entailed. The title is explicitly religious and it deals with notions of faith and doubt throughout. Contact is also transparent in this regard. It portrays a celestial message, depicts discussions about the existence of God, and ends in the protagonist’s encounter with god-like aliens in a personal revelation open to potential skepticism.
Stellar revelation narratives tend be more theological than political in their ambitions. They often have a particular theology they are trying to put forward, which is generally an attempt to suture the separation between religion and science or to explore some sort of pantheistic cosmos.[iv] Often their politics turns on the issue of the government’s role in the encounter (Does the government try to cover up the aliens? Or are the protagonists themselves top-level government officials or scientists?). But more often than not the political aims of a stellar revelation narrative are expressed in the utopian ideals exposed by the aliens themselves. Often this is a plea for political pacifism. Typically, this is expressed in a simplistic why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along vision of world peace, but sometimes it has more precise political coordinates.
I don’t mean this typology to be exhaustive. [v] But it should give a sense of the genre topography Arrival and let us more precisely situate its politics.
It is my sense that Arrival shifts through the three modes described above. It starts as alien invasion, passes through space anthropology, and then culminates in stellar revelation, whose political-theology I’ll discuss below. MORE SPOILERS FOLLOW:
Arrival sells itself as an invasion film. This is true in many of the trailers and the opening of the film. After a brief sequence that sets up the linguist and protagonist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and what we think is her backstory, the narrative really kicks off with the appearance of twelve alien vessels that appear at different points on the globe and the widespread reaction that results. The existence of alien spaceships is never in doubt and early scenes of panic could be drawn from a number of alien-invasion films. The problem with analyzing “Arrival” as invasion is that the alien heptapods of the film do not actually attempt to conquer the earth, nor do they attempt to subvert it, or drain resources from it. So we are left with what is indeed an alien “arrival” but no invasion.
As we quickly learn when Louise arrives in Montana, though, the key thing about these aliens is that their language is incomprehensible. Thus, the protagonist and her colleagues have to take on the role of space anthropologists coming to understand the heptapods’ language and culture. These scenes culminate in the film’s main dramatic highpoints, which are an attack on the vulnerable aliens by some rogue American soldiers (who seem to have been radicalized by right-wing media) and then, later, anxiety over the Chinese government’s demand that the aliens either leave or be attacked. Both the exploration of the alien’s culture/language and the anxiety over hurting the aliens are hallmarks of space ethnology narratives.
We can specify more precisely the film’s politics and indeed part of what makes it distinctive if we can recognize who the aliens symbolize. In other words, if the aliens represent the “other” in an anthropological encounter, which “other” do they represent? Arrival is not an auto-invasion film in which the aliens represent Americans (or Canadians) invading North America, nor are they meant to stand in for indigenous peoples. So who does that leave?
The striking thing about the film for me is that in many respects Arrival depicts a kind of Neo-Orientalism. I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” which served as the basis for the film, but at the very least in Denis Villeneuve’s film the heptapods embody a number of traits associated with the Chinese in the North American popular imagination.
First and foremost, the distinctive aspect of the alien’s language is that it is communicated through writing. One of Louise’s early insights is to show the heptapods a handwritten signboard and to largely ignore the alien’s vocalizations in favor of ink the aliens squirt from their tentacles into the shape of circular textual symbols. The viewer is told that the alien language is “pictographic.” This is significant because Chinese characters are often described as “pictographic”[vi] and, moreover, in the Sinitic cultural sphere more broadly (e.g. Korea and Japan), characters that were originally Chinese were adopted by unrelated languages that were quite different from one another phonetically (in the way they sound). So in that respect Chinese characters came to serve as a mobile written language that functioned primarily at the semantic (meaning) level (although they brought with them some phonetics). So insofar as the alien speech is written speech it seems to be standing in for a Sinitic civilization.
Second, when Louise figures out the heptapod written language, she discovers that it non-linear in structure, but that a given heptapod sentence is in some sense atemporal. Again we can see evidence for Neo-Orientalism, because while Chinese has ways to indicate temporality, Chinese verbs don’t conjugate, they stay the same regardless of whether they are describing present, past, or future events. Looked at from an Anglophone vantage point that could be mistaken for the transcendence of time.
Third, The Peoples Republic of China also appear as the main antagonists in the film. The Chinese government is depicted as a rival for the US interpretation of the heptapods, and a climactic moment of the film comes when Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma, depicted right) threatens the aliens, a conflict that is only resolved when the protagonist speaks to him in Chinese (his wife’s last words), and, most importantly of all, the catastrophe the film seems to be setting up and then resolving is a conflict between America and China. In this respect, the heptapods express the symbolic doubling common to much of speculative fiction (e.g. “True Blood” both has vampires as a metaphor for homosexuality and also depicts homosexual human characters). In this respect, the aliens are an exaggeration of North American images of Chineseness and hence an expression of Neo-Orientalism.
A standout feature of Arrival is that instead of a traditional space ethnography or auto invasion, the film allegorizes not European colonialism but the encounter between America and East Asia. Moreover, insofar as it ignores the devastating effect that the legacy of European colonialism had on China, the film is positing a kind of encounter between near equals. Read in this way, the film suggests that America can either destroy Sinitic civilization or it can choose to learn from it. In sum, the heptapods are cultural ambassadors spreading civilization like the global Confucius Institutes funded by the PRC Ministry of Education.
So far so good, but Arrival doesn’t fully fit the pattern of space ethnography. Human technology is not superior. There is no anxiety about damaging the heptapods’ civilization, and so on. Rather the main thrust of the film is a particular “technological” revelation that the heptapods impart to the Louise and that, as the film depicts, she eventually passes on to the rest of humanity. Basically, as she translates their language the protagonist is fundamentally transformed, gaining the ability to experience time atemporally herself. The film is, in this respect, a stellar revelation, but it is such without dwelling on questions of faith, madness, or uncertainties about the real existence of the aliens to portray an idealized future. In sum, the film doesn’t want us to doubt the aliens’ revelation, but to take it in.
The press has largely focused on the fact that the alien language changes one’s subjective temporality. Instead of experiencing time linearly (which is often associated, incorrectly, with Euro-American civilization), Louise comes to experience all time at once. The philosophy of language that codes this revelation is a strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis described in a snippet of dialogue in the film as “the theory that the language you speak determines how you think.” So that by learning the heptapods language Louise changes the way she thinks and thus experiences the world.
Interestingly, despite all the press this film has gotten from (pop) linguists, the fact that this insight is transmitted as language was secondary to the original short story. As Ted Chiang described it he was mostly interested in reflecting on how a deterministic orientation toward time would change one’s experience of life and that he had considered using devices other than learning a language to have the protagonist experience this issue. But the film actually violates this determinism as in a key scene Louise sees into the future and communicates her insights to General Shang in order to prevent a global conflict. The film sets this up as a dramatic moment in such a way that it appears to be a choice, which, of course, is not deterministic. [vii] At the same time, the protagonist’s insights into the future doesn’t change the future of her daughter (who we learn dies young). So the film seems to be inadvertently suggesting that the power to see circular time can avert a global catastrophe but not a domestic one. Or more likely the filmmakers were being sloppy for the sake of dramatic tension. This bothered me a bit when I first saw the film, but I think it is evidence that the utopian impulse in the film is political rather than personal.
The fact that it is a language (not say a drug) that transforms the experience of time is important in part because the main place that the film suggests its political philosophy of language. This becomes clear in a crucial scene of the film in which we see that Louise publishes a book (or we might say holy book) with the title “The Universal Language,” which she will dedicate to her daughter. Later she is at a diplomatic party and being celebrated by General Shang for resolving political conflict between the US and China over the aliens.[viii] The key thing the diffusion of the heptapod language does in the film is usher in world peace (like many stellar revelation films). But in this sense, it seems to be suggesting that a new utopian political order can be produced if we all just learn the same language. Sapir-Whorf here suggests a politics of global linguistic hegemony (like the European search for a universal language discussed by Umberto Eco) . If we all shared a langue, the film seems to be suggesting, we would then be able to communicate perfectly and share in our vision for the future. In other words, the unconscious politics behind Arrival is that we could have world peace if we all learned Chinese.
[i] The mistimed reboot “V” 2009 TV Series would have been better now, not under Obama.
[ii] Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography. 2nd Edition (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 266.
[iii] The title was taken from Hynek who was also a consultant on the film appearing in one scene.
[iv] Carl Sagan’s original novel is explicit, concluding with the lines: “Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe. The circle had closed. She found what she had been searching for.” Carl Sagan, Contact: A Novel (New York: Pocket Books, 1997), 431.
[v] A fourth-type of “first encounter” sci-fi is the “alien refugee” theme of E.T. and similar films, in which a single stray alien usually on the run or in some particular state of distress arrives on Earth. This type of story often expresses worries about political asylum but usually ends in either killing the alien or returning it to its original people. A related version found in Alien Nation (1988) or District 9 (2009) is about the presumed challenges of assimilating large groups of refugees.
[vi] In point fact Chinese Hanzi漢字 includes pictograms, ideograms, and phonetic elements.
[vii] My lovely wife disagrees with me on this point. J
[viii] The dialogue of the film refers to political “unification.” Taiwan related?