The Birth of a Border
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
In Arrival some very sophisticated aliens (almost) land in twelve, apparently random, locations around the world. We only become familiar with one of their gigantic ships but assume that the rest behave in a similar way. In Montana, the army soon builds a perimeter around the spot to protect the country from potential invaders and only a very select group of people is allowed to cross it. A very basic, unsophisticated variety of border construction. The aliens, for their part, open an entrance into their craft, inviting earthlings in to establish communication. Once in, however, the human characters find an invisible barrier that they are not allowed to cross. No exceptions are made until much later on in the narrative. Around that barrier, precarious communication is established. Since they are so intellectual superior it is difficult to understand why the aliens do not seem to understand English (or any of the other earth languages in the other locations). The US army sensibly hires a brilliant linguist and a supposedly brilliant scientist to try and decipher the aliens’ language. A border has been created and it almost looks like a membrane, extremely difficult to cross but supple enough to encourage the desire to communicate. Gradually, our heroine the linguist begins to understand and to ask questions. The answers, however, are open to interpretation: some read them as a threat of invasion, others as an invitation to establish friendly contact. Very soon the dynamic around the border becomes familiar: one driven by linguistic and cultural barriers, fear and curiosity about the other, and of course geopolitical agendas. Interestingly, the US authorities, maybe still Obama-like, are more open to explore exchange. The Chinese and the Russians are more aggressive and belligerent. Around the ambiguous membrane, ideology is immediately constructed. For a fantasy film, Arrival is pretty accurate about the functioning of borders in a global world.
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