Top­i­cal

The theme about “oth­ers” in “Ar­rival” res­onates af­ter the 2016 elec­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - BY ZACHARY PIN­CUS-ROTH zachary.pin­cus­roth@wash­post.com

Amy Adams’s char­ac­ter in “Ar­rival” as­cends on a ver­ti­cal lift through a hole in the alien space­craft, and grav­ity sud­denly shifts side­ways. When she fi­nally sees the crea­tures, they’re be­hind glass, ob­scured by fog — look­ing like enor­mous black hands with seven fin­gers, pur­pose­fully de­signed by the film­mak­ers to be not-so-human.

Be­yond the spe­cial-ef­fects wiz­ardry, the scene is a re­minder that word “alien” shares a root with the Latin “al­ius,” mean­ing “other.” The film, it turns out, is about over­com­ing di­vides not only be­tween species, but also among na­tion­al­i­ties, as Adams’s lin­guist char­ac­ter works with col­leagues from China, Rus­sia and other coun­tries where the ob­long ships have been parked to fig­ure out the aliens’ pic­to­graphic lan­guage.

These themes in De­nis Vil­leneuve’s film, nom­i­nated for best pic­ture and seven other Os­cars, be- came es­pe­cially res­o­nant af­ter the elec­tion of a strongly Amer­ica-first pres­i­dent in a deeply di­vided na­tion, and are even more so now, amid im­mi­gra­tion crack­downs. And, as the film shows, sci­ence fic­tion has a knack for help­ing us sort out our feel­ings about those dif­fer­ent from us.

“It’s turned out to be loaded with po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary,” “Ar­rival” pro­ducer Shawn Levy says of the movie’s re­flec­tion of the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue, “some­thing our film­mak­ing team doesn’t re­gret, but this was largely unan­tic­i­pated.”

The film’s po­lit­i­cal themes were in­tended to be more time­less. “The movie was al­ways a com­men­tary on a world that is of­ten prone to frac­tur­ing,” Levy says. “It in­vests in the faith that co­op­er­a­tion among na­tions be­yond bor­ders can lead to global ben­e­fits.”

Daniel W. Drezner, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at Tufts Unithe ver­sity in Bos­ton and the author of “The­o­ries of In­ter­na­tional Pol­i­tics and Zom­bies,” says sci­ence fic­tion movies like “Ar­rival” can be viewed as com­men­taries on his field. (Some spoil­ers ahead.) Re­al­ism — the the­ory of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions as a power-wield­ing, zero-sum game — shows up in Ge­orge Romero’s zom­bie movies and in “In­de­pen­dence Day,” about a human-alien war, Drezner says.

Dr. Louise Banks, Adams’s char­ac­ter in “Ar­rival,” even­tu­ally re­al­izes that the aliens view diplo­macy as a “non-zero-sum game,” like lib­er­al­ism, which ar­gues that co­op­er­a­tion among na­tions leads to mu­tual ben­e­fits. The film also em­bod­ies con­struc­tivism, the view that dif­fer­ences re­sult from such so­cially con­structed norms as lan­guage.

“You could ar­gue that the aliens are try­ing to so­cially con­struct a norm of co­op­er­a­tion among the coun­tries in­volved,” Drezner says, so that hu­mans will later help the aliens, who can see the fu­ture.

Drezner, who is also a Wash­ing­ton Post con­trib­u­tor, says that although the film doesn’t get ev­ery­thing right about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions — for one, the United States cuts off com­mu­ni­ca­tion with other na­tions too hastily — it does show how lan­guage mat­ters. One plot point hinges on how an alien im­age is trans­lated. Sim­i­larly, Drezner says, a big step in Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Trump came when he gave Trump a com­pli­ment that was trans­lated in some re­ports as “bril­liant,” and Trump in­ter­preted as “ge­nius,” but is closer to “color­ful, vivid or flam­boy­ant,” ac­cord­ing to the Guardian. Putin later clar­i­fied that he had meant “bright.”

Movie crea­tures have been echoes of the “other” since at least the 1930s, when the Flash Gor­don se­ri­als’ vil­lain Ming the Mer­ci­less

The themes in “Ar­rival,” nom­i­nated for eight Academy Awards, be­came es­pe­cially res­o­nant af­ter the elec­tion of a strongly Amer­ica-first pres­i­dent in a deeply di­vided na­tion.

was a “yel­low peril” stand-in for our fears of Asian im­mi­grants. In 1951, “The Thing From An­other World” was a Cold War anal­ogy. Later, “Star Trek” of­ten com­mented on race re­la­tions.

Other sci-fi films more ex­plic­itly ref­er­ence im­mi­gra­tion — such as 2009’s “Sleep Dealer,” in which our South­ern border is walled off, but peo­ple in Mex­ico can still work in the States by pi­lot­ing ro­bots who do con­struc­tion work or clean houses. Even the com­edy “Men in Black” plays on the dou­ble mean­ing of “alien” — in the open­ing scene, a man who ap­pears to be an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant smug­gled in a truck turns out to be an ex­trater­res­trial in dis­guise.

A prom­i­nent ex­am­ple of sci-fi weigh­ing in on cul­tural di­vides is 2009’s “District 9,” an apartheid anal­ogy in which the pro­tag­o­nist, Wikus, heads an ef­fort to re­lo­cate the “prawn”-like aliens from their Jo­han­nes­burg ghetto be­fore his sym­pa­thies shift.

Terri Tatchell, who wrote that film with di­rec­tor Neill Blomkamp, notes that in “District 9,” “Ar­rival” and even 1986’s “The Fly” — one of her in­spi­ra­tions — the human pro­tag­o­nist takes on char­ac­ter­is­tics of the other crea­tures, which helps them see the non­hu­man side.

Tatchell says her hope is that “peo­ple would start out be­ing to­tally dis­gusted with this alien and to­tally dis­gusted with this op­pres­sor . . . and at the end be able to un­der­stand them a lit­tle bet­ter.”

To Tatchell, the ap­peal of sci­ence fic­tion is less about global pol­i­tics and more about how char­ac­ters re­spond to un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions. “My take­away is al­ways a lit­tle more per­sonal than all en­com­pass­ing. To me it’s all about em­pa­thy and what can you do to make change, what can you do if you were sud­denly in that sit­u­a­tion.”

Jay Telotte, a Ge­or­gia Tech pro­fes­sor who stud­ies sci­ence fic­tion film and TV, says that po­lit­i­cal metaphors can be found in genre films of all sorts. In Westerns and mu­si­cals, he says, “the same thing hap­pens — you find ways of dis­plac­ing your anx­i­eties and putting them into this other form. It’s not as threat­en­ing, and cer­tainly it’s not as polem­i­cal.”

The HBO se­ries “West­world,” a sci-fi and Western mash-up, is a kind of meta-take on this dis­place­ment, de­pict­ing a fu­ture in which hu­mans sign up to live in a Western en­vi­ron­ment where the char­ac­ters are played by ro­bots — an­other pop­u­lar sci-fi ver­sion of peo­ple other than us.

Telotte cau­tions that no mat­ter how top­i­cal these films might be, they’re un­likely to create big changes. “Movies never solve prob­lems,” he says. “We go to films that make us feel bet­ter about the things that are both­er­ing us.”

Films can create smaller ef­fects, notes Lisa Yaszek, a Ge­or­gia Tech pro­fes­sor who stud­ies sci­ence fic­tion. “The Day Af­ter To­mor­row,” the 2004 film about a new ice age, “com­presses the time­line of global warm­ing into a lu­di­crous frame­work,” she says, but helps to dra­ma­tize an ab­stract is­sue.

“Sci­en­tists will in­voke sci­ence fic­tion films to ar­gue for or against cer­tain lines of re­search,” she says. “A nanosci­en­tist will say, ‘The work I do is not sci­ence fic­tion. It’s noth­ing like Michael Crichton’s “Prey.” You shouldn’t be wor­ried about nanoswarms.’ ”

“Ar­rival’s” Levy re­cently sat in a Hol­ly­wood edit­ing stu­dio work­ing on Sea­son 2 of an­other sci-fi pro­duc­ing project, the Net­flix se­ries “Stranger Things,” when the creators of the show, the Duf­fer brothers, barged in to show him a video from the floor of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“Like the main char­ac­ters in ‘Stranger Things,’ we are now stuck in the ‘Up­side Down’ — right is wrong, up is down, black is white,” Rep. David N. Ci­cilline (D-R.I.) an­nounced, re­fer­ring to the se­ries’ par­al­lel di­men­sion, next to a poster say­ing “Trump Things” in the show’s logo.

“Like Mike, Lu­cas, Dustin and Eleven, we must re­main fo­cused on the task at hand and hold this ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­count­able,” Ci­cilline added.

“Un­be­liev­able,” Levy says. “To per­me­ate cul­ture in a way that helps peo­ple process life and cur­rent events — and I very much feel ‘Ar­rival’ has done the same thing — it’s a lit­tle sur­real.

“If that con­gress­man was able to get his mes­sage across to a dozen peo­ple who might not oth­er­wise have it res­onate, that’s pretty sat­is­fy­ing.”

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