It may be tempting to think Arrival (2016) is only about linguistic communication. After all, it follows expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she decodes the language of aliens. This view misses the point. Arrival (2016) is about media literacy. It is about thinking critically about the media we consume and communicating its messages responsibly.
This media theme is hard to miss. In the film, television, social media and online video blogs drive the plot. Audiences get glimpses of the outside world only through news reports on the television and online. Media fuels riots, looting and a terror incident.
Central to the film is the contrast between the public’s impatient and impulsive reactions to news media about the aliens and the tranquil demeanor of Banks. An impatient vlogger condemns government inaction and calls for “a show of force…a shot across the bow”. Netizens circulate a leaked image of the aliens all across online media, without checking its source. People break into shops to steal food upon seeing that leaked image. The public’s impulsive reactions are in stark contrast Banks’ calm methodological response. She makes a matter-of-fact proposal for more time to interact with the aliens. She goes to work though her students are too scared to do so.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wants us to side with Banks’ response. He said, “…our increasing need for the immediate understanding, the knee-jerk reaction, the false equivalence, all that happens right away, and is our downfall.” The film champions her as the role model of the ideal media consumer through the use of plot, sound and dialogue.
Banks does not take anything she reads at face value. Though the media paints aliens as scary “invaders” that everyone freaks out at, she is unbiased about them and doesn’t make any assumptions about them. When she is first approached by Colonel Weber, she is watching a news clip warning people about the alien “emergency”. Yet, she does not back away from the aliens and instead asks to talk to them. She does not believe the intuitive façade the media places on the aliens. This critical thinking leads her to make a daring move. She peels off her hazmat suit (and her guardedness), extends her naked hand towards the aliens and says, “Now that’s a proper introduction”. She sees past the implicit assumptions in the media she consumes and in doing so, is rewarded in the film, as this skill of hers allows her to make a breakthrough in learning the alien language.
The film deploys sound to champion the Banks brand of media consumption. Noisy social unrest scenes captured on the television are contrasted with her quiet viewing of these television reports and the quiet interactions Banks has with the aliens. We are constantly reminded that the aliens are not antagonistic and the only turmoil comes from irrational overreactions to the news.
Banks brings her unbiased attitude not only to aliens, but also to those whom we consider alien: people who hold different political opinions from us. The media paints the Chinese general as a two-dimensional stern character. Heisserer explains that this is because the US media thinks of him as a potential enemy. He said, “And we’re taking whatever’s being said in Chinese, whoever’s translating that is taking it to the U.S. news and saying, “Oh, this is the big bad general.”” But Banks does not fall for this trope. She peels apart that facade to communicate with the general and saves the day.
Beyond understanding that the media can only capture one facet of everything it reports on, Banks also understands the power of words to influence our worldview. This is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is core to Banks’s profession. Though the media reports that the aliens indicate an intention to use weapons, she realizes that because the Chinese communicate with the aliens with mah-jong, the aliens can communicate only in terms of battles and wars, rather than ideas and emotions. She discovers that ‘weapon’ could have a neutral meaning to the aliens too, and this is key to the resolution of the conflict. Though media reports describe the advent of the aliens as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘invasion’, she insists on calling it an ‘arrival’ in an attempt to erase the subjectivity that the former two words imbue in the media consumers around her.
Of course, some would question the effectiveness of the film in advocating for everyone to be more cognizant of media biases and to seek to understand people patiently, because this message seems left-leaning and so right-leaning people may be put off by this message. However, the film is non-partisan, showing just enough to draw audiences on both sides of the political spectrum in without putting off either side. She rants to her mother on the phone about “that damned channel” (which is not specified), bringing to mind Republican skepticism towards left-leaning news shows and Democrat cynicism towards right-leaning media. She says “Am I the only one having trouble saying aliens?” (think Trump’s “(Obama) won’t use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism) while advocating for further discourse with the foreigners/aliens. The motive of every person who engages in questionable behavior is fully accounted for. We see them as fallible humans, rather than evil people.
The film ends with a montage of news reports, each contributing to a united portrait of the events following the finale. It provides an abrupt sense of calmness in the otherwise very tense movie, begging audiences to feel that this sense of calmness is merely temporary. More media frenzies await, and we need the Banks brand of media literacy to manage the upcoming frenzies. It is not just the media that caused the chaos and most of the action in this alien arrival, but also the overreactions of people to the news. The traditional media was not intentionally distorting the truth, but it was merely reporting the truths that people are interested in hearing. We can’t change the media. We can strive for the Banks brand of media literacy. Especially in the light of the national divide that the Presidential Elections of 2016 unveiled, we need to acknowledge the context of media reports we read and approach every situation without biased assumptions. We need to avoid being consumed in media bubbles and both sides of the political spectrum need to extend their naked hands to each other and understand each other, instead of seeing each other as alien.
David Sim’s “Arrival’s Timely Message About Empathy.”