Published in The Washington Post
Amy Adams’s character in “Arrival” ascends on a vertical lift through a hole in the alien spacecraft, and gravity suddenly shifts sideways. When she finally sees the creatures, they’re behind glass, obscured by fog — looking like enormous black hands with seven fingers, purposefully designed by the filmmakers to be not-so-human.
Beyond the special-effects wizardry, the scene is a reminder that the word “alien” shares a root with the Latin “alius,” meaning “other.” The film, it turns out, is about overcoming divides not only between species, but also among nationalities, as Adams’s linguist character works with colleagues from China, Russia and other countries where the oblong ships have been parked to figure out the aliens’ pictographic language.
These themes in Denis Villeneuve’s film, nominated for best picture and seven other Oscars, became especially resonant after the election of a strongly America-first president in a deeply divided nation, and are even more so now, amid immigration crackdowns. And, as the film shows, science fiction has a knack for helping us sort out our feelings about those different from us.
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