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Why stories about aliens are always stories about humanity

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Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is just the latest film to turn extraterrestrials into a reflective lens pointed at Earth


When it comes to depicting aliens on-screen, we’ve come a long way from little green men with bulbous heads and jet-black tea-saucer eyeballs. Cinematic aliens have assumed every shape and size, from the gorilla-suit-and-diving-bell monster creature in Robot Monster to the blue-skinned felines of Avatar to the million species of the Star Wars universe. Giving alien characters such varied and foreign characteristics preserves their key trait — the feeling of unfamiliarity. The latest make and model of alien, courtesy of Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama / low-key philosophical treatise Arrival, resembles something between gigantic squids and seven-fingered hands. But even though fictional extraterrestrials have been as varied as planets in the universe, our stories about them tend to freight them all with the same significance.

When aliens visit Earth, their movies consistently define them by their differences from humans. Alien characters are consistently used to provide points of comparison for Homo sapiens, exposing truths about our behavior and culture by contrast. We have to step outside ourselves to get the clearest view. And Arrival, with its weighty meditations on humanity’s instinct for conflict and potential for cooperation, couldn’t be a more crystalline reflection of our cultural moment.

Robot Monster (1953)
Image Entertainment

Space travel and first contact were some of the earliest impossible dreams realized through cinema. Proto-kino wizard Georges Méliès is still best-known for his 1902 short A Trip to the Moon, which ships a group of explorers to a distant planet peopled by insect-faced cretins who burst into smoke when attacked. It’s a straightforward yarn of derring-do common for the period, but there was a visible touch of the era’s colonialism in the portrayal of the aliens, and how the heroes interact with them. The chattering barbarians get cut down by the advanced culture of the conquerors; the short is a few hokey-looking costumes away from a historical tableau. Méliès suffused his film with the expansionist spirit of Western Europe, playacting the carbon-based life-form’s burden.

Alien narratives became fertile seeding ground for social allegories in the decades that followed. National anxieties over the Space Race and the Red Scare in 1950s America converged into simple parables about suspicion and tolerance, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and various Twilight Zone episodes. The advent of computers, video games, and other rapidly changing technologies in the ‘70s and ‘80s precipitated alien encounters both friendly (Star Wars envisioned a universe teeming with possibility) and hostile (Alien pitted humans against a faceless, wraithlike, hyper-evolved enemy). Paranoia returned to the genre around the turn of the millennium. The aliens since then have been more diffuse, from the friendly comic outsiders of Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch to the religious-metaphor monsters in Signs to the neighborhood-uniting glow-critters in Attack the Block. They all help us define ourselves, whether by providing a unifying threat or by showing how we can cuddle up and make friends, or even family, in spite of our external differences.

When our interplanetary neighbors aren’t shedding light on society-wide truths, they work on more intimate, granular levels. Indie movies are more likely to be philosophical and navel-gazing about otherworldly invasion, with essentially vacant aliens pinpointing deeper nuances of life as a person. American material vices corrupt and ultimately destroy a reptilian David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Brother From Another Planet sets a runaway alien slave loose in New York and scandalizes him with the little tragedies of city life. More recently, in Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson preys on — and develops an unwilling fondness for — the prevailing human need for affection.

District 9 (2009)

Like many other films about aliens — mostly notably and directly, Neill Blomkamp’s Apartheid allegory District 9 — Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival uses the oncoming aliens as a metaphor for foreign immigrants. Eric Heisserer’s script bounces the alternately American and generally human qualities of combativeness, distrust, hostility, and violence off the inscrutable aliens that post up across the surface of the globe. Their towering, clamshell-looking transportation pods pick landing sites with no clear pattern, and the aliens’ intent on Earth is anyone’s guess. Naturally, this freaks people out. Many automatically fear the aliens are out for blood, and those willing to believe they’ve come in peace are wary to share Earth’s resources with the newcomers. (The parallels between anti-immigrant sentiments in an America fretting over mass deportation hide right in plain sight.) Top government officials call expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks, portrayed with heroic composure by Amy Adams. It falls to her to guide America back toward peace by deciphering the Rorschach blots the aliens squirt out as a means of communication, and encouraging the rest of the globe to share information in a spirit of scientific inquiry and brotherhood.

Confronted with an unknowable Other, of course the human surrogates react with fear, hatred, and explosive charges. As Dr. Banks notes, undercurrents of opposition and conflict have been hardwired into the English language. War is in our vernacular bones, and the “leap to the most dire conclusion and go from there” doctrine so frequently employed in situations like these comes right on cue.

Arrival (2016)

Nobody in the upper ranks of the military likes the notion of uninvited visitors who can’t be controlled or removed. The military and the reaction team’s on-site NSA rep immediately assume the newcomers have plans for war (everyone’s pulse quickens when Dr. Banks believes the aliens, dubbed heptapods, might be offering America a weapon), and even cooler-headed officials bristle at the thought of the aliens taking up space on Earth. And the unease produced by the aliens’ arrival has some nations thinking about nukes — if the silent invaders don’t take humankind out, infighting between panicked nations that refuse to coordinate with one another will.

But after Heisserer’s script unloads its Big Twist, there’s a turn from a pessimistic appraisal of the global profile to a more hopeful look forward. Hasty reactions to aliens’ arrival in Arrival fracture the already-divided globe further, but uniting around the revelation of their peaceable nature brings everyone closer together. The aliens have a specific gift for humankind, but they offer something else valuable: a shared concern, a reminder of the ways in which we are similar. (The “villain” of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen pulled a similar plan, averting nuclear armageddon by faking an alien attack to pacify all the world’s superpowers.) The heptapods’ generosity and pacifistic nature throw the human default of aggression and opposition into sharp relief. It never even dawns on the humans that the heptapods might not share our natural inclination toward domination through force. But the film’s end signals a bridging of that gap; even in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, perhaps qualities like mercy and sympathy can win out.

Arrival’s creators had no way of knowing just how crucially relevant the film would be by the time of its release. But even incidentally, this film does the traditional cultural work of the alien-visitor genre by giving viewers a vessel into which we can place our national nervousness and battered optimism. Many Americans woke up on November 9th in a country that felt alien. Arrival inadvertently became the first in what will undoubtedly be a long line of post-Trump art. Its themes of communication, openness, composure during crisis, and international interdependence speak directly to our perilous new status quo. And its aliens — intelligent but initially inscrutable, and strikingly inhuman — again invite viewers to consider how similar all human beings are, compared to something with a different biology, a different outlook, and a different history.

A few generations from now, only in-the-know scholars will read Arrival as a zeitgeist-capturing social document. But to audiences in the present, it plays like a cry for sanity in troubled times. By introducing space invaders who have evolved past the need for violence, and who encourage cooperation and harmony just by existing, Villeneuve emphasizes our own addiction to conflict. Then he offers a path to a brighter tomorrow, where being human also means needing to be humane.