What Are Alien Movies Really About?



Let’s be honest: Aliens are having a bit of a moment. A 30-year moment, to be precise. Ever since Steven Spielberg introduced a loveable penis-fingered alien to audiences in 1982, we’ve had the fever.

            This didn’t used to be such an all-encompassing obsession. Aliens didn’t used to be the ‘twist’ to every horror movie or futuristic story. Think about the past year in films alone. 10 Cloverfield Lane. The Martian. Independence Day…again. The tired, ceaseless march of Star Wars and Star Trek sequels. And now, we have AHS season 6 fast approaching with its abduction theme.


            Now personally, I’ll never understand this culture’s fascination with stories about life on other planets. No matter how you spin it, it feels dated, empty, and deeply uninteresting. That said, I might have to eat my hat.


            The trailer for the Denis Villeneuve TIFF hit Arrival came out today, and boy is it…something. It’s got Amy Adams. It’s got Jeremy Renner. It’s got octopus-like creatures throwing themselves against an aquarium wall. And that’s about it. But if that’s not enough for you then brother, I don’t know what is!



So what actually makes Arrival different than every other alien invasion movie? The strong female lead? Nope. The interesting visuals? Nah. The ‘chosen one’ conceit? Not really.

            It’s that it’s about language.


 This might not sound too radical or revolutionary to you, but personally I find it to be kind of a huge step up from the usual, Cold War-derived “the aliens are here, run!” plotline. One line in the trailer stuck out in particular, when Adams says:

            “They need to know the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy and sometimes it can be both.”


         That concept alone changes the game for what Arrival could be. It’s not being set up as an alien invasion film—it’s being set up as an Alien colonization film, something that’s much more relevant, interesting, and related to our own history.

            To use the idea of an alien descent as an opportunity to look at how our culture might deal with it is huge. How would humans react from country to country? How would we make room? What would alien racism look like? What would alien appropriation look like? Would red-staters be afraid, eventually, aliens taking our jobs?


            Ridiculous as all this sounds, it’s a far sight better than the pointless questions most films of this kind bring up. To marry real world concepts with fantastical art and design in a seamless and provocative way is a huge achievement in the world of sci-fi and fantasy. A statement film like Arrival isn’t something that even our best sci-fi directors seem pressed to make.

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