I have become largely numb to the onslaught of ludicrous statements made by Donald Trump, which have somehow been normalized by even more ludicrous attempts on cable news to discuss them like they came from the mouth of a sane person. Improbably, it took seeing a science fiction movie at the Toronto International Film Festival to shake me loose from my stupidity-induced stupor. I can once again actively fear the prospect of this madman becoming president - and despair that, whether he wins or not, so many are backing his candidacy.
Denis Villeneuve’s new alien “invasion” film, Arrival, is a peacenik moviegoer’s dream: 12 massive, mysterious pods appear in random spots across the earth, each manned by gigantic “hectopods” - basically, enormous Octopus-like creatures. Amy Adams, as renowned linguist Dr. Louise Banks, is drafted by the U.S. military to try and communicate with these creatures, whose intentions are unknown. Unlike virtually every other movie featuring a fleet of mega-sized alien ships stocked with terrifying creatures, here they do not seem particularly threatening or aggressive.
The pods have entry tunnels, which allow humans to travel up the ships and come face-to-face with the massive invertebrates. Banks, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), works diligently to communicate with the hectopods. They need to understand what the aliens are doing here, but first, they must establish a common language, so they’re not speaking past one another and triggering a war.
All the while, the US is working with governments from the other countries where the hectopods landed, whose own scientists and militaries are conducting experiments and establishing communication with the extraterrestrial visitors as well.
As is made clear throughout, the various interests of the different governments, and the earth’s lack of one true leader, make all this teamwork an evermore dicey proposition. The military leader working with Banks, Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker), pressures her throughout to speed up what is fundamental, building block work; China in particular is bucking to get aggressive with the aliens, and the American president, a model of restraint and diplomacy, is under a lot of pressure to make a move as the economy collapses and streets are filled with rioters and looters.
Though he’s not mentioned by name, it’s easy to imagine President Obama providing the cool, thoughtful, careful leadership described in this film. After all, he’s being chastised to no end by right wing talk radio bloviators who want military action yesterday. The communication with these still-peaceful visitors only gets as far as it does because the president ignores those calls, and manages to massage relations with other nations for so long. Imagine if, say, someone whose campaign was filled at the highest levels with those right wing news bloviators, was president in such a scenario?
Enter Trump, who has proven himself the complete opposite of the leader needed in this particular situation. He blustered this week that he’d fire most of the U.S. military’s generals in favor of more aggressive warmongers, and he has been endlessly antagonistic of China (except when he has his clothing manufactured there). When the movie comes down to relations with China, I can’t help but think of the world being wiped out in Trump’s America. He’s more likely to be calling their leaders losers than working constructively to address the very real challenges facing the world.
Obviously, you don’t vote for someone based on how they’d handle a very fictional alien invasion scenario. But the purpose of the best hard science fiction is to illuminate our real world, and Trump has proven himself very unhinged on all planes of existence. The answers to what-if questions aren’t strictly theoretical; that’s why the military plays war games. In Arrival, which is as realistic as alien films get, Trump would be the loser that brings us all down with him.