Arrival released in theaters not even a week beyond the 2016 election. It is, chronologically speaking, a post-Trump film, but it is not written as such. That’s not a criticism so much as a reality of production schedules – shooting began in mid-2015, the screenwriter turned in a draft before that, and somebody had the idea rattling around in their head even before that. If we envisioned the presidency of Donald Trump at all in mid-2015, we didn’t give it much credence, let alone construct whole films around the idea. That’s not to say Arrival is apolitical, of course. Its central conflict revolves around getting China and Russia to chill out. A group of soldiers mutiny after being radicalized by what appears to be a conservative radio show insisting that Somebody Needs to Do Something. At the start of the film, when everyone on the planet is flipping through channels in search of news about the alien landing, Amy Adams chides her mother to avoid “that other channel” because “those people are idiots.”
Because the film is informed by the current (or, at least, formerly current) political climate, the U.S. government naturally figures into the plot. They are on edge about the revelation that humans are Not Alone in the Universe, so characters must constantly reassure military and intelligence agency types that the aliens don’t mean any harm, that they won’t use such-and-such information against humanity, that the earth won’t be the epicenter of any cosmic explosions. Despite these apprehensions, the U.S. remains willing to talk to the aliens, and much of the film follows Amy Adams as she deciphers their language and develops a way to communicate.
It’s true that I can’t imagine this kind of restraint under the Trump administration, but Arrival lost me on a much more basic level than that. In sci-fi movies, we are accustomed to the U.S. government’s narrative presence, typically by one organization or another like FBI or CIA or military as representative(s) of the entire political arm of the United States – they are The Government, proper noun. Though details vary between each film’s portrayal, there is a constant: The Government is on top of things. The Government is on the scene with unmarked vans and HAZMAT suits at the mere mention of UFOs and little green men, and as viewers we are mostly OK with this. We willfully suspend our disbelief at preposterous response times and openly accept that, where aliens are concerned, all of America may as well be a white suburban neighborhood. It just makes sense.
While a single glance at the legislative process over the past few years should pretty much torpedo anyone’s faith in this weird hyper-competence and make any resulting conspiracies seem fundamentally ridiculous, we remain able to suspend our disbelief. The reason we’re able to do so is a basic faith in the government, the kind cultivated by grade school textbooks and anthropomorphic singing bills – by the people, for the people, all that stuff. Not a faith that our interests are being served necessarily, but a faith in the government’s ability to function as a semi-oiled machine at (at least) its minimum setting and thus at a basic level of competence. Regardless of in-fighting or political posturing or what have you, we believe (or want to believe) things are still humming along beneath the hood, that everything is going as planned. Sci-fi movies embellish from there, of course, but they retain this crucial basis in reality – “as planned” just so happens to include an alien cover-up.
Which all makes it very hard to watch Arrival now, at the end of March 2017. Twice Trump has been thwarted in court over absurd travel bans. Not only are the ethics of the people in his administration regarded with pretty much a perpetual question mark, but so are their most basic qualifications. We hear reports of jobs unfilled, rampant leaks, executive orders passed unread, the failed Yemen raid, the health care debacle. The list goes on. The obvious question on America’s lips: how does this administration react in your average alien movie? The Government in Arrival doesn’t even do anything that seems outside the realm of possibility, but with current political events hanging overhead, their smooth response seems absurd. It’s not a question of restraint, because let’s be honest, a Trump-led U.S. would occupy the exact spot a trigger-happy China and Russia do in this film. Instead, it’s a question of the ability to do the most basic stuff. The Government quickly arrives on the scene, sets up a perimeter, doles out information on a need-to-know-and-you-don’t-need-to-know basis; nobody gets in or out without somebody’s say-so and so on and so forth. Other countries behave likewise. It’s all just simple competence, and yet simple competence feels completely implausible.
Back in 2000, I voted for Al Gore. The fact that I did so in kindergarten because I liked the color blue should tell you how politically aware I was for the last widely-criticized presidency, so I can’t say if my reaction is unique to Donald Trump. What I do know is that observing the 2016 election has had the odd peripheral effect of dislodging a basic faith in government that movies like Arrival rely on. Fiction is a lens through which we observe reality. We distort, we twist, and we shape that reality to suit the story, but we use it as a base. And when I see The Government functioning with some level of competence, when I look through Arrival’s lens at the place where our own reality should be, I don’t see anything at all.