Arrival: Big trouble with big China

Arrival is ostensibly a film about communication. At its core, the plot details how Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) deciphers a series of linguistic symbols communicated to her by extra-terrestrial visitors. But what happens when we attempt to decipher the other subtle symbols that the film displays elsewhere? We peel back layers of tensioned diplomatic relationships that expose America’s fragile sense of self as a global superpower. It becomes a celebration of cultural imperialism. And ends with enough cheese to fill a fair few smorgasbords.

You cheeky bastard

The main narrative thread of Arrival revolves around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial vessels across the globe. These spacecraft arrive in Australia, the Black Sea, China, Greenland, Japan, Pakistan, Siberia, Sierra-Leone, Sudan, the UK, Venezuela and, the setting of the film, the US. In the first half of the film, there is a lot of screentime devoted to the development of diplomatic communications between these countries. More specifically, we observe how these diplomatic communications break down, almost immediately from the start of the film. Regrettably, this also the start of some of the major issues within the film.

Russia, naturally, is a big old aggressor who are super keen to use military power almost as soon as their spaceship arrives in Siberia. They’re also the ones who cut contact with all the other countries and thereby lead to a communication blackout early on in the film. Why’s that? I guess because Russians are bad and reprehensible and don’t do multilateral negotiations, or something. In fact, the coded treatment of Russia in Arrival draws on such a laughable ‘evil’ stereotype that it’s almost as if the film-makers have thought “fuck it, everyone knows what these guys are like, let’s give absolutely no depth to their actions.”

Those untrustworthy East Slavs aren’t the only ones who are painted with the most basic palette of primary colours though. While they might not be drawn quite as negatively, the semiotic representation of other countries is equally simplistic. The UK basically pops up to say “you cheeky bastard” in a British accent and then disappears again. What does this mean? Perhaps it reflects an uneven relationship in which the Brits aren’t taken seriously. Or maybe the director wanted to wow his audience with this really original take on British lexicon. Then we’ve got Sudan, a Muslim country where lots of Arabs wearing shemagh either pray or run around lots. I guess it’s some progress that they’re not all strapped-up terrorists shouting “yella”, but this is culturally inaccurate and so one-dimensional. Spare a thought for Sierra-Leone too, who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no scenes in the film, presumably because sub-Saharan Africa isn’t really very important. These blindingly obvious signifiers plague the remaining countries, which you’ll notice soon enough if you watch the film.

Public enemy

While the representation of other countries is full of tired cliches, the depiction of China brings something new, and indeed timely, to the table. Needless to say, it’s still problematic. In Arrival, China is set up as a global superpower, alongside Russia and the US. China isn’t quite as trigger happy as their Eurasian neighbours, but as the film grunts towards a climax, it’s China that threatens world peace. China has surrounded its extra-terrestrial visitors with full military might and is threatening to destroy them, thus risking the chance of alien retaliation and/or a major diplomatic escalation. Essentially, China becomes the biggest aggressor, the one willing to risk everything because they’re sceptical of this newly-arrived other. Ultimately, there’s only one way that the Chinese-initiated disaster can be averted. This is through a nonviolent time-travelling intervention by Dr Banks, during which she is able to wow the Chinese head of state with her supreme cultural knowledge of linguistics.

Reality absolutely doesn’t reflect this. Even within the context of the film, this is a strange one. You see, it’s actually the Americans who first attack the inhabitants of the spacecraft, by placing a bomb inside it. Instead of this becoming a major plot point, these Americans are dismissed as a bunch of embarrassing mavericks. They’re not immediately punished for their actions and just trail off out of the film. In fact, reality does reflect American imperial aggression. We can sit here all day and talk about the civilians of Iraq, Saddam without trial and illusory WMDs. But let’s think about Fidel Castro, who died earlier this weekend. In the eyes of Arrival, the US follows diplomacy to the bitter end, even as its friends and foes resort to violence. The diplomacy that Castro was afforded following the 1959 Cuban Revolution: 634 assassination attempts.

The coming war

So why does Arrival portray China in such unkind, aggressive terms, while the US is given the spot of a peaceful benevolent? Simply put, the film is a form of soft power. Its intention is to act as propaganda for both American citizens and those elsewhere in the Global North. As I watched this film, I was reminded of an essay by John Pilger. In this essay, Pilger argues that a world war has already covertly begun. One of the major sites of this emergent war is the South China Sea. Pilger suggests that the US has destabilised local relations in this area as a means of paving essential military access for its warships. Likewise, he outlines the numerous American allies surrounding China who host American military bases. Pilger will soon release a film on this topic:

Interestingly, the book that Arrival is based on has none of the global communication nonsense that dirties the film. It’s simply not neccessary for a plot that works perfectly well as a smart sci-fi story. So when I see a film in which China is held up as the bad guy, I’m immediately suspicious. And when that film gives me the most unoriginally offensive stereotypes of other nations, I’m somewhat disgusted.

Don’t watch Arrival this weekend. If you’re after a film about the beauty of communication and human existence, watch Paterson instead.

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