Arrival: An ode to alienation

Arrival is the movie by Dennis Villeneuve, the man behind the devastating war drama Incendies. It has Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as the lead actors playing a linguist and a physicist respectively to uncover the rationale behind the arrival of mystic beings called Heptapods. Villeneuve’s treatment of the sci-fi is in essence poetic. He drowns you in enigmatic visuals and esoteric soundtracks. He does not keep you away from the Heptapods, he throws you right in from of them, to experience them viscerally.

Arrival has taken multiple meanings and shall don further connotations in times to come. But for me Arrival has been significant of two real and increasingly overwhelming phenomena in the world.

One, the over reliance on objectivity to solve problems, two the palpable alienation among humans.

Speaking of objectivity, majority of alien movie up to date have been about alien invasions and how humans (“Americans”) have averted the catastrophe and send them back packing. This would include movies such as Independence Day, War of the Worlds etc. In all these movies the solutions of the alien menace has been designed by chemists,physicists, biologists who analyse the alien in an alienated objective manner and by running complex tests and algorithms.

Arrival reverses this positivist idea of understanding reality, here the physicist takes a back seat, it is the linguist which cracks open the purpose of the Arrival by subjectively engaging with the aliens. Once the subjective understanding is achieved then only the objective tools of the mathematicians and physicists are employed to standardize the understanding and to replicate it. This reminds us of the Weberian method in social sciences called Verstehen, Weber says that the reality is subjective, replete with meanings and motives. Hence interpretation of reality is important to understand it and then only any objective method can be employed. In essence the objective understanding of the subjective reality.

The world right now is over reliant on objective methods to understand and solve problems, this has led to financial meltdowns . Complex mathematical models could not predict the breakdown and was followed by the solution of quantitative easing which also failed to bring the global growth to earlier levels.

On the other hand some progress have been made in the climate change issue where the concept of INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) have been introduced. Here the the subjective states of all nations have been considered before drawing an objective target leading to the historic consensus in Paris. Every nation state provided an emission target(INDC) that is possible in their socio-economic context (subjective) and then an objective target of containing the rise of temperature within a specified limit is decided, which happens to be 2 degree Celsius from the pre-industrial levels.

Coming to the second phenomenon of alienation. Villeneuve’s alien has a Marxian quality. Marx has talked about alienation from the species being. We inhibit a society of stratified social classes or nation states and we think and act according the needs and values of this particular social strata. This disengages us from humanity or our ability to think and act in a way that is beneficial to the human species as a whole.

Arrival highlights this issue clearly. To solve the purpose of the visit of Heptopods, different nations should act in a concerted manner by sharing information received from the different heptopod ships. But having embraced social construct of a nation state ardently and due to huge trust deficits between them, it becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming to think and act cogently for the sake of humanity. Arrival through the alien has showed us our own alienation.

In the world right now the amount of time consumed to reach to a Climate Pact, the increasing insignificance of inter-governmental bodies like WTO and the UN, the Brexit, isolation of Iran and North Korea, are all examples of alienation from species being. Consensus on issues at an international level has been almost impossible to achieve, even if it is achieved it has not been sustainable.

A movie like Arrival make us understand what it is to be a human and how difficult it is to be a human.



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