‘Arrival’ and the Power of Empathy

     November 15, 2016


I’ve been feeling pretty pessimistic for the past week. We’re always going to be divided in some ways, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are things where we can have honest disagreements and still end the day as friends. But in our political system, our divisions have become antipathy, and when we don’t understand each other, when we lose our empathy for those who aren’t like us, that’s when everything goes horribly wrong. In its own way, Arrival is like other first contact sci-fi stories, and it carries a similar message, but by focusing on the power of communication, it provides a modicum of hope.

[Spoilers ahead for Arrival]

When I think about Arrival, the two films that come to mind are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Contact. Both movies are first contact stories where the themes are a reflection of our current concerns. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a Cold War parable while Contact tries to reckon with the power of the religious right in a time of scientific discovery. Arrival drills to the core of these conflicts by making communication the key to a larger story of world conflict. Technologically, we’re more connected than ever and yet, Arrival suggests, more communication hasn’t made us better neighbors.

arrival-movie-posterWhen linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) arrives in Montana, she discovers that because there are twelve alien ships (called “shells”) around the Earth, different governments are responding in different ways, but right now there are two coalitions, one led by the U.S. and the other led by China. China’s communication efforts are based on using Mahjong tiles, and Banks points out that if you use a game, then your language is based on conflict. Our instruments of communication determine the way our minds think.

This is expanded into Banks learning the language of the aliens, the heptapods. Learning their language rewires her brain so that she begins to perceive time as they do, which is in the ability to see into the future. The heptapods need humanity to learn their language so that humanity will be prepared in three thousand years to help the heptapods. Language creates empathy.

It’s this message of empathy where Arrival feels particularly powerful today. Yes, the story involving Banks’ daughter’s life and death is the emotional core, but where Arrival thematically resonates is in how our modes of communication change the way we think. We can see that right now with the Internet. People have a place to not only share their thoughts and feelings, but have those thoughts and feelings reinforced.

In some ways, this is harmless. If we all want to get together and talk about how much we love Batman, it’s fine. If LGBTQ teens need a place where they can find people who are similar to them or have gone through their experience, it’s terrific. But it’s also a place where hate speech gets reinforced and repeated and condoned. The language we use rewires our perception. For Banks, it’s her perception of time, but for us, it’s our perception of other people.


Image via Paramount Pictures

To his credit, director Denis Villeneuve tries to wrap up his movie with hope, and yet it’s done in a slightly cynical way. To stop China from attacking the heptapods, Banks has to make a direct appeal to General Shang (Tzi Ma). She doesn’t reason with him. She doesn’t make a persuasive argument. She tells him his wife’s dying words. She makes a personal appeal, and it’s not until something personally affects Shang that he decides to make peace.

Ideally, a better argument would win. Banks could call Shang, explain the alien language, point out that China’s attempts at communication were based on a conflict model, and he would trust the judgment of the world’s foremost linguist. But as this election has shown us, facts don’t matter. Actions that affect people who aren’t like you don’t matter. There are lots of selfish people in the world, and some philosophies believe that selfishness should be rewarded.

But there’s also empathy, and Arrival believes that empathetic people can convince selfish people to change their minds even if it means appealing to their selfishness. Selfishness and fear will not save the world. Those things can only end mankind, and if our language is the language of conflict, we will lose every time. Banks is the hero not because she understands the heptapods’ language but because she’s willing to make the proper introduction. She understands the power of language, the power of words, to create and to destroy.

Arrival doesn’t scold its audience. There’s no moment like in The Day the Earth Stood Still where the alien gives a big speech to mankind about how they need to be better. There’s no wild-eyed Jake Busey ready to destroy science like there is in Contact. But there is definitely a message, and I hope it’s a message that audiences will hear and then emulate.


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