How Arrival brings a fresh view to the alien genre and informs the debate on immigration today


Grace Downing, Forum Editor

When I began watching the much-anticipated, alien-themed movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, my dominating emotion was one of cautious intrigue. Prior to this, I had only seen a teaser trailer for the film, which (as is its job) gave away very little about the actual plot of the movie, other than the fact that aliens would be playing a major role. So as the screen faded from black and began to play the opening scene, I had no idea just how much this film would expand my perspective on alien life, its relationship with humans and speak to our country’s current struggle over immigration.




Arrival begins when extraterrestrial beings land on our planet with a coded message to us in their language. Their intention being unclear, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with the job of learning to communicate with these aliens in order to decode their message.

Through this, Louise discovers that these beings came to Earth not to harm us, but to help us. Much like the circular figures in which they write, these aliens do not think in a linear fashion like we do. Time is not linear to them: past, present and future are happening all at once.

Due to varying thought processes between barriers of different languages, the human race is slowly reaching its own demise. The aliens are giving us a universal language – their language – with which to communicate and become united as species, and therefore stop our seemingly imminent destruction. And they are doing this all because thousands of years from now, their own race will be on the tipping point of destruction, and will need our help in order to survive.

Days after I had finished watching Arrival, the events of this film kept swirling around inside my mind, as the effect of its message became ingrained in me. The simple fact that the aliens in this movie didn’t try to demolish the entire human race and take over our planet was a refreshing outcome in itself. After decades of Hollywood making movies like Alien (and its many sequels), War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and many more genocide-bent extraterrestrial films, I was worried that Arrival would produce a similarly predictable storyline.

But instead, it pursued the more unfamiliar idea of these beings actually coming to our aid, and succeeding in uniting us as a race.

In recognizing this, I’ve realized that another reason this movie has had such a profound effect on me is because it brings to light an issue that we have grappled with for years in America, and continue to struggle with today: the idea of anything foreign or unknown automatically being classified as bad.

Many of these killer alien plot lines follow the theme of the outsiders (the aliens) assuming vicious and deadly characteristics in their singular goal of bringing harm to us, and this storyline parallels the current controversy over admitting refugees and immigrants into America.

Many citizens are afraid that letting refugees into our country will compromise our safety, and look at these people as threats. The worry mainly centers on how these refugees will harm us (because apparently they inevitably will, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and not on how they themselves are currently being harmed or persecuted. Many Americans who support the executive order on the travel ban may not be taking into consideration the lives of these refugees, what they are running from, and why they have chosen America as a safe haven.

An overwhelming amount of extraterrestrial movies highlight the ways in which the “outsiders” will prove to be our enemies. Arrival brings an alternate perspective to the idea of these outsiders and the potential they offer to add knowledge, skills and strength to a country founded on these qualities.

The unknown always comes with risks, but especially in a place like America – a nation that was built on immigration – there comes a point when we have to decide if we are going to be the kind of country that sinks to the level of the freedom restricting nations that welcome few, or one that fulfills the motto engraved in the statue that ushers people to our shores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”