The extraordinary stress of the past month has led to record attendance at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. of high-powered families bidding farewell to a panda headed to China, with an assist from global warming’s backhanded gift to the nation’s capital of persisting springlike temperatures. It was a warm and sunny “Bye-Bye to Bao Bao” time.
This weekend offers another opportunity, the Academy Awards. Once again, there is a large list of excellent film offerings to be considered, this time with a definite tilt toward diversity that was missing in recent years.
This context provides me the opportunity to tout my favorite of the year, and it’s about aliens, though not the kind that Trump is chasing after these days.
“Arrival,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and released last November, is nominated for Best Picture and seven other Oscars, though the trending is against its winning a lot of them.
Still, it is a superb film and for more than the usual, aggravating reductionist standards by which such works of art are reviewed and graded these days.
(As a child and admittedly to this day, I was and am a huge fan of George Pal’s 1953 classic rendering of the H.G. Wells alien thriller, “The War of the Worlds,” with amazing special effects all done without CG assistance. But that film, like so many involving a visitation to Earth by aliens, was framed in an adversarial context, a hostile invasion. There was too much female screaming, but the aliens looked really creepy and cool.)
“Arrival” is a film intended to challenge how we earthlings think of ourselves and the world we live in. The visitors come here to lay the groundwork for the kind of progress on this planet that they will need to help them out in about 3,000 years, they say. Yes, for them, time and space are quite non-linear, suggesting that the future is somehow knowable and the speed of light is not an insurmountable barrier.
My spoiler alert filter off after three months, I can report that the two aliens actress Amy Adams’ character, a linguist named Louise Banks, encounters look like giant octopuses (no, it is not “octopi”) except that with seven instead of eight legs, they are technically heptapods. They are upright suspended in their own rarefied atmosphere.
Interestingly, it is not that far-fetched to imagine an evolutionary path from our current human form to their look. They do have arms, hands and fingers, after all, and they write with ink (!).
All this aside, the meritorious and lasting benefit of this outstanding film lies in the way the aliens task us, the earthlings, with being able to communicate with their very different way of thinking and being.
Key insights come when Dr. Banks contrasts “zero sum game” thinking, in which there is always a winner and loser, with “non-zero sum game” thinking, in which the prospect of a so-called “win-win” outcome exists.
The Chinese in the film condemn their communications effort to failure, in this regard, when they adopt a “zero sum” game, mahjong, as the construct for interpreting the aliens’ words. This construct, which requires a winner and a loser, causes them to misinterpret a key alien word as “weapon.”
This provokes them to prepare for war. But Dr. Banks comes to realize the word is meant to be translated as “gift,” not “weapon.”
That changes everything, of course, and in getting the Chinese to stand down she finds a way for a brief phone encounter with the Chinese dictator where she convinces him by recounting to him his own wife’s last words in Mandarin, which were (according to an Imdb.com posting), “In war there are no winners, only widows.”
What a critique of our competitive sports-obsessed American culture where everything, including politics, is rendered in terms of a “zero sum game” of winners and losers! Only by overthrowing this fallacious construct do we as a species have a chance for survival today.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.