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Arrival – like many science fiction stories before it – is a movie about aliens visiting our world. Arriving in 12 vessels that hover in intimidating decadence above the Earth, their purpose is unknown. And rather than weaving a story around conflict, miscommunication or the imminent and cruel end of Earth as we know it, it follows a linguist (Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams) as she learns how to interact with our intergalactic acquaintances.

The connection Dr. Banks forms with her well-travelled comrades is built on an emotional understanding that transcends language in its most literal form. Because emotion is exactly what Arrival delivers in place of the pace, action and adventure that befits a sci-fi blockbuster. “What lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax,” writes critic Anthony Lane for the New Yorker, “but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.” And it’s hit the box office at a time when we’re feeling our feelings more strongly than ever, succeeding where the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence – a more traditional take on the genre – have been panned.

Arrival offers a more sensitive take on science fiction
Sony Pictures Entertainment (2016) ©

Studies suggest that empathy has greatly diminished in the past 30 years – a point that’s arguably proven by 2016’s polarising politics, which saw campaigns championing in-groups over out-groups succeed. In response, there’s a renewed motivation to encourage and enact more empathy. Whether it’s banks training their staff to be more empathetic to vulnerable customers, or parents prioritising soft skills in their kids’ learning, more emphasis than ever is being placed on the EQ required to understand our fellow humans.

It’s catalysing a shift that’s occurring genre-wide. A departure from the fear-drenched ‘us vs. them’ narratives that befit much 20th Century sci-fi (think Terminator or Alien), robots and aliens alike are being written with the same – if not more – complexity and depth as their human counterparts. Against this backdrop, Arrival fits right in; a movie about empathising and communicating with other living beings (even if they’re not human). 

Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.

11 Jan 17
2 min read

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